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.

If Looks Could Kill

cockatrice_jlweb

Monsters have been known to take many forms, from seductive succubi and skulking bogeymen to blood-slurping chupacabras and giant krakens. Among the most unusual and horrific of such creatures has to be the cockatrice. Associated with demonic forces and deadly powers, this small, peculiar beast stirred panic in the hearts of late-medieval Europeans.

Part-bird and part-snake, with bat-like wings, the cockatrice was believed to be the offspring of a farmyard oddity—an egg-laying cockerel.1 If anyone discovered such a rooster, prompt and severe actions were required. First, retrieving the egg before it was incubated by a toad2 or snake3 was necessary, so as to prevent the cockatrice from developing and ultimately hatching. If the rooster was really thought to have laid an egg, then the fowl had to be destroyed so that no other eggs were produced. Again, such matters were taken very seriously, as demonstrated in 1474 by the people of Basel, Switzerland, who put their alleged avian culprit on trial before burning it at the stake.4

A Scary Notion

The possible existence of creatures in conflict with the natural order of things was a terrifying prospect to people centuries ago. What the cockatrice and its supposed egg-laying cockerel parent represented were affronts to a fixed delineation between the sexes and between species. Aberrations could be seen as crimes against nature, involving witchcraft or the meddling of a sinister supernatural realm. Danger was apparent in the cockatrice’s form, of course, in other ways. The creature supposedly had scales and a snake-like tail, key physical characteristics shared with the devil. (Passages in the book of Revelation (12:9 and 20:2) describe Satan as a serpentine entity, an idea John Milton used with memorable effect in his Paradise Lost.)

Not surprisingly, the cockatrice became synonymous in medieval bestiaries with another ancient and menacing snake, the basilisk. Perhaps most familiar today from J. K.  Rowling’s 1998 novel Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the basilisk has a long history. Belief in such a beast extends at least as far back as the first century, described in the writings of both Pliny (Natural History) and Lucan (Pharsalia)5 and later misattributed to venomous creatures of the Old Testament.6 Similarities were said to exist in the lethal prowess of both the basilisk and cockatrice, as they were reportedly capable of delivering venomous bites and emitting a poisonous odor.7 Their usual mode of killing, however, consisted of simply staring into a victim’s eyes, a notion popularized in Shakespeare’s plays.8

Science to the Rescue                                                                            

As serious inquiry replaced superstition, monsters from the Dark Ages came to slowly be dismissed. Scientists of the Renaissance and Enlightenment rejected the flimsy evidence—mostly hoaxes9—of a half-bird, half-snake cockatrice. Unraveling the mystery behind the egg-laying cockerels, however, took a bit more effort. The eighteenth-century French scientist François Gigot de Lapeyronie was the first to conduct rigorous investigations into the subject; his studies concluded that the roosters in question were actually hens.10 Subsequent research has since demonstrated that female fowl with certain ovarian diseases can develop some of the physical characteristics of their male counterparts.11

So unbeknownst to the residents of fifteenth-century Basel, Switzerland, the egg-laying rooster they prosecuted was probably a hen with some hormonal ailment. The cockatrice that haunted medieval Europe never materialized, for the beast with deadly eyes was only a freakish fiend hatched from unfounded fears, another testament to the irrationality of human nature.

Sources:

  1. Bondeson, J. The Feejee Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999. p. 167.
  2. Bondeson, J. p. 167.
  3. Stephens, TD. “A Basilisk by Any Other Name … (A Short History of the Cockatrice): A Commentary on Dr. Hook’s Article on Shakespeare, Genetic Malformations, and the Wars of the Roses.” Teratology 35: 2 (April 1987). AR Liss, Inc. p. 278.
  4. Stephens, TD. p. 277.
  5. Badke, D. The Medieval Bestiary: Animals in the Middle Ages: Basilisk (1/15/2011): http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast265.htm.
  6. In several Old Testament texts (e.g., Isaiah 14:29, Jeremiah 8:17, Proverbs 23:32, Psalms 91:13), the terms for certain venomous animals were erroneously translated as “basilisks” and “cockatrices.” For more information, see J Bondeson (p. 167) and TD Stephens (p. 277).
  7. Hulme, FE. Natural History, Lore and Legend: Being Some Few Examples of Quaint and By-Gone Beliefs Gathered in from Divers Authorities, Ancient and Medieval, of Varying Degrees of Reliability. London, UK: Bernard Quaritch, Norman and Son, 1895. p. 237.
  8. Hulme (p. 237) notes three Shakespearean plays that refer to the cockatrice’s deadly glance: Romeo and Juliet (3.2.47), The Tragedy of King Richard III (4.1.54–55), and Twelfth Night (3.4.197–198). A greater number of the bard’s works cite the basilisk in this role, including Cymbeline (2.4.109–110), The Life of King Henry V (5.2.17–18), The Second Part of King Henry VI (3.2.52–53), The Tragedy of King Richard III (1.2.153), and The Winter’s Tale (1.2.386–389), among others.
  9. One of the most common hoaxes consisted of dried rays or skates, sometimes referred to as “Jenny Hanivers.” TD Stephens (p. 279) notes the use of these preserved remains centuries ago by conmen. Famed Italian Renaissance naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi supposedly possessed such a specimen but did not think it was a basilisk or cockatrice (J Bondeson, p. 178).
  10. Bondeson, J. p. 188.
  11. Birkhead, T. The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2008. p. 282.

 

Happy Draw a Bird Day!

MREbird_for DABD

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

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

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

Sources:

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

 

 

 

Tweet Dreams and Flights of the Imagination

TweetDreams_JML2

What do you see when you gaze up at a bird? Just a small flapping bundle of bones, tissue, and feathers? Maybe a winged life-form in search of a mate or on the lookout for its next meal? Perhaps a colorful songster if it’s trilling a pretty tune?

But is that all? Chances are that there’s also something calling forth to deeper dimensions of your being, beyond the surface of empirical and intellectual analysis, to those undercurrents where myth, poetry, folklore, music, and the visual arts live. To the world of dreams and the imagination, the place where deep-seated and powerful emotions play with a language all their own. And if we look closely, our feathered friends take flight from there as well.

When a Bird is not just a Bird

As Freud and other psychologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries began exploring the human subconscious, they soon noticed the appearance of birds in their patients’ dreams. This is not surprising. “Dreams about birds are very common and extremely various,” Julia Turner remarked in her 1924 book Human Psychology as Seen Through the Dream (1).

Anybody remotely aware of Freud’s research knows that he frequently ascribed sexual implications to his patients’ dreams. The subject of birds was no different. “The intimate connection between flying and the idea of a bird makes it comprehensible that the dream of flying in the case of men usually has a significance of coarse sensuality,” he wrote in The Interpretation of Dreams, adding that similar content revealed by female patients also indicated “longing.” (2)

The Austrian psychoanalyst’s assessments did not go unchallenged. In particular, Freud’s former protégé Carl Jung saw a greater range of dynamics at work, often extending well beyond sexuality. These aspects typically related to archetypes found in world religions and mythology. Joseph L. Henderson, one of Jung’s followers, indicated that avian creatures often symbolize spiritual release and transcendence (3). Such ideas also correspond in part to those of Julia Turner, who connected birds to a person’s “higher self,” seeing feathered animals as longstanding symbols of the soul (4). A previous post here delves more into the bird-as-spirit cultural element.

On a sidenote, the very nature of dreaming may be responsible for the long-held and widespread association of birds with the soul. In other words, the dreaming state conceivably fostered notions in early societies of a spirit separate from and capable of venturing outside the body. Stanislas Dehaene, a professor of experimental cognitive psychology at the Collége de France, touches on this idea in his 2014 book Consciousness and the Brain. “And the bird,” he adds, “seems the most natural metaphor for the dreamer’s soul: during dreams, the mind flies to distant places and ancient times, free as a sparrow.” (5) Dehaene briefly notes in his book several historical instances of related bird symbolism.

“Therapeutic” Meanings

Birds probably fascinated humans long before the invention of language, which may account for the many ways our winged neighbors continue to entice us. Like the pioneers of modern psychology, British ornithologist Edward A. Armstrong respected the pull that symbols can have on the mind. After all, he devoted several books to bird folklore. Though he embraced science, he also valued so-called “dream thinking” and “folk thinking.” “Probably both types of thinking are therapeutic,” he stated, “because in them the lightly buried, partly repudiated, past finds expression.” (6)

As for the various interpretations of such expressions, ideas advanced by Freudians, Jungians, and others are all probably correct—depending on the individual, his or her culture, and the circumstances. In a sense then how people decipher the avian content of the subconscious mind may be debatable. That birds still rouse feelings of hope and desire, wonder and excitement, continuing to give flight to the imagination, fortunately is not.

Sources:

  1. Turner, J. Human Psychology as Seen Through the Dream. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2000 (reprint – first published in 1924 by Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.). p. 163.
  2. Freud, S. The Interpretation of Dreams. Third Edition (Translator: Brill, AA). New York: Macmillan, 1923. p. 239.
  3. Henderson, JL. “Ancient Myths and Modern Man.” Jung CG, et al. Man and His Symbols. New York: Dell Publishing, 1968. pp. 147–156.
  4. Turner, J. pp. 162-163.
  5. Dehaene, S. Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts. New York: Viking Penguin. 2014. p. 1.
  6. 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: Collins, 1958. p. 84.

 

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 Shinto and Japanese Culture

ShintoRooster

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

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

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

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

Monsters, Messengers, and More

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

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

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

Iconic Creatures

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

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

Summary                                                                                                             

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

Sources:

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

Birds in Chinese Religions and Culture

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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.

Birds in Christianity, from the Obvious to the Unusual

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The New Testament mentions at least six different types of birds. Even more are found in the Old Testament. Some non-canonical literature, particularly gnostic manuscripts such as The Gospel of Thomas and The Secret Book of John, also contain references. But focusing on those feathered creatures in the traditional Christian texts—along with a brief look at some of the avian-related folklore, art, and poetry inspired by Jesus and the saints—offers up more than enough material for a post!

Annunciation to Crucifixion

Let’s begin with the obvious, the dove. This bird’s allegorical connection to the Holy Spirit makes it the most prevalent avian icon of Christianity. Today, many churches use doves in their logos and signage, the Gospel Music Association dubs its annual accolades the “Dove Awards,” and until recently the Vatican released doves into St. Peter’s Square. One can find the white-winged creatures in paintings depicting the Annunciation and also Jesus’s baptism. The latter scene is especially noteworthy, as the descriptions given in John 1:32 and the synoptic gospels (Matthew 3:16, Mark 1:10, Luke 3:22) establish this symbol’s scriptural basis. Furthermore, Jesus mentions the birds in one of his teachings. Extolling doves for their gentle ways, he recommends that his followers behave similarly (Matthew 10:16).

Despite the dove’s importance, Christ incorporates other birds into his sermons. When mentioning the dead, for instance, he notes the scavenging vultures (Matthew 24:28, Luke 17:37). In another teaching, to represent common objects of seemingly little value, he turns his disciples’ eyes to the small sparrows (Matthew 10:29–31, Luke 12:6–7). Later, when counseling his followers against worrying, Jesus remarks how the crows (or ravens) do not stockpile food (Luke 12:24). Thus, alluding to the wisdom of these birds, he indicates that God will provide, too, for his disciples and others in need.

As recorded in the New Testament, birds accompany pivotal events in Christ’s last days and also appear in visions related to the early Church. Jesus’s cleansing of the temple consists not only of driving out the moneychangers but also those merchants who sell sacrificial pigeons (or doves) (Matthew 21:12–13, Mark 11:15–16, Luke 19:45–46, John 2:16). Later, a situation involving Peter’s repeated denial of knowing Jesus is punctuated with a rooster crowing (Matthew 26:34, 26:69–75; Mark 14:30, 14:66–72; Luke 22:34, 22:56–62; John 13:38, 18:25–27). This incident, a fulfillment of Jesus’s prediction, marks the last time any of the four gospels refer to a feathered creature. But birds are reported later again in important visions witnessed by St. Peter (Acts 10:11–16) and St. John (Revelation 19:17–21).

While the New Testament does not reveal any birds at the Crucifixion, folklore entertains several narratives. In Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore, the naturalist Ernest Ingersoll runs through numerous “legends of the Cross” that sprung up in Europe. Some of these involve a red crossbill attempting to pry the nails from Jesus’s limbs, a European robin tending to his pierced side, a swallow wresting the sharpest thorns from the crown placed around Jesus’s head, and a dove sitting nearby in mourning (1). These tales passed as just-so stories, attempting to account for certain avian characteristics. For example, the red feathered patches on several birds, according to such legends, originated as stains from Christ’s blood.

Unusual Christian Symbols

Bird imagery, of course, is not always rooted in the events of Jesus’s life. The Greek Orthodox Church, for instance, employs iconography of pagan origins that extends back ages. The double-headed eagle is used today due to the heraldic emblem’s connection to the prior Byzantine Church. However, the design predates Christianity by several thousand years (2). The Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints does not identify with any particular avian symbol, but the Salt Lake City community has erected a monument commemorating the summer of 1848 when seagulls supposedly saved early Mormon settlers’ crops from a massive cricket invasion (3).

Centuries ago, European Christians commonly associated certain birds with figures of the New Testament, but did so in a rather tenuous manner. For example, in medieval bestiaries, the pelican is identified with Jesus Christ and the vulture with the Virgin Mary. As noted in a previous post, these works usually have religious and moral reasons for making such odd connections, even when lacking any overt scriptural basis. Some associations seem a little more sensible, though, such as the identification of St. John with the eagle. Medieval manuscripts often linked the two due to the raptor’s early presence in Revelation (e.g., 4:7, 8:13), a prophetic book commonly attributed to the apostle (4). Another bird is sometimes identified with St. Peter. Though the stormy petrel is not mentioned in the New Testament, it is supposedly named after Peter and an account in Matthew 14:29 (5). How so? Well, when this small bird feeds from atop the ocean’s surface, the creature appears to walk on water, just as Peter is said to have done with Jesus.

A few stories assimilate pagan mythology. Many people centuries ago fancied the European goldfinch in the role of the aforementioned swallow at the Cross (6). As cited in a prior post, this belief, conjoined with Christianized ideas regarding antiquity’s mythical charadrius (also caladrius), is likely responsible for hundreds of Renaissance paintings portraying the Christ child with this bird. Of course even earlier, Church Fathers appropriated another legendary creature with pre-Christian origins as a symbol of the Resurrection—the phoenix, sometimes depicted with the attributes of an eagle and peacock (7). Interestingly, St. Augustine of Hippo reports in his City of God that peacock flesh does not decompose, an idea equated later in some bestiaries with immortality (8). Perhaps he even had the phoenix in mind.

Saints and Their Feathered Friends

Numerous legends tell of Christian hermits and evangelists befriending birds. Some of these remarkable relationships include St. Columba’s heron, St. Malo’s wren, and St. Hugh’s swans, among many others (9). One of the most famous of these legends involves “St. Kevin and The Blackbird,” a tale reiterated in verse by Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney. In his short poem, Kevin has stretched his arm outside a window when a blackbird lands in his open palm and lays its eggs. The saint then, while praying, miraculously steadies his arm and hand in place, “Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks / Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.” (10) An incredible story, but not without precedent! The Hindu Mahabharata offers a similar tale about a hermit named Jajali, except in that ascetic’s case the birds nest on his head (11).

The most celebrated of all Christians in regard to our winged neighbors, of course, is St. Francis of Assisi. His sermons to these creatures are commonly portrayed in Western art, ranging from the Giotto’s late thirteenth-century “St. Francis Preaching to the Birds” to Sir Stanley Spencer’s provocative twentieth-century “St. Francis and the Birds.” The theme occurs, too, in verse, such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Sermon of St. Francis” (12) as well as another of Heaney’s poems, “Saint Francis and the Birds” (13). But again, St. Francis, is just one of many figures in Christianity associated with birds.

Summary

On the whole, Christianity has exerted an immense bearing on the portrayal of birds in Western art (e.g., Hieronymous Bosch, Raphael, Josefa de Obidos, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Olga Suvorova, etc.) and literature (e.g., John Donne, John Milton, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Denise Levertov, Geoffrey Hill, etc.). A single blog post cannot come remotely close to examining the historical dynamics of this theme, a point that holds true as well for other religions. At the very least, I’m hoping that the information provided offers a decent overview.

For a look at avian creatures in the Old Testament, please see the previous post on Judaism. As always, thanks for reading—especially such a lengthy piece! Next week, I would like to view birds in Islam, the last of the Abrahamic faiths.

Sources:

  1. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. pp. 112–115.
  2. Ingersoll, E. pp. 28–34.
  3. “Seagull Monument, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA,” Mormon Historic Sites Foundation: http://mormonhistoricsites.org/seagull-monument/.
  4. Heck, C., Cordonnier, R. The Grand Medieval Bestiary: Animals in Illuminated Manuscripts. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2012. p. 144.
  5. Newell, V. Discovering the Folklore of Birds and Beasts. Tring, Herts., United Kingdom: Shire Publications, 1971. p. 56.
  6. Ingersoll, E. p. 113.
  7. Ingersoll, E. pp. 196–198.
  8. Heck, C. pp. 44, 477–478.
  9. 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. xiv.
  10. Heaney, S.J. “St. Kevin and the Blackbird,” The Poetry Archive: http://www.poetryarchive.org/poem/st-kevin-and-blackbird.
  11. Williams, G.M. Handbook of Hindu Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. p. 160.
  12. Longfellow, H.W. “The Sermon of St. Francis” (http://www.hwlongfellow.org/poems_poem.php?pid=232).
  13. Heaney, S.J. “Saint Francis and the Birds,” Emory University’s Lewis H. Beck Center: http://beck.library.emory.edu/BelfastGroup/browse.php?id=heaney1_1041#heaney1_1035.

Birds in Judaism and Jewish Culture

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A look at one of the oldest faiths offers us insights into the many ways birds impact societies. Judaism, of course, is a religion of spiritual and practical guidance, but it is also much more. It’s a living collection of history, songs, wisdom teachings, and customs that support the cultural and ethnic identity of Jews throughout the world. In these sources and practices, avian creatures of all kinds are used as food and offerings, as metaphor and allegory, and as a celebration of life and God.

The ancient scribes of this tradition sprinkled observations on birds throughout their writings. In a few cases the men are seized with wonder, as expressed by the author of Proverbs 30:18–19 who ranks the flight of the eagle among the four enigmas too perplexing for him to understand. Sometimes lines within such texts convey gratitude, as in the way Psalms 104:12 praises God for the birds that nest and sing. Of course, other examples exist, numerous ones often appealing symbolically or applying to practical matters.

Spiritual Images

Avian metaphors, first and foremost, are common in Jewish scriptures and folklore. Jeremiah 17:11, for example, claims that folks who are greedy and dishonest are like certain birds, such as partridges, hatching eggs not their own. In several instances, too, the Israelites are compared to birds. Among these, Exodus 19:4 likens them to an eagle’s offspring (and God to a parent eagle) while Amos 3:5 uses the metaphor of a sinful people trapped like an ensnared bird. Centuries later, some European Jews even resorted to portraying historical personalities in their art with bird-like features. This was due to Old Testament prohibitions regarding certain types of artistic images (Exodus 20:4–6, Deuteronomy 5:8–10). To circumvent these restrictions, a German fourteenth-century illuminated manuscript called the Birds’ Head Haggadah reveals that artists depicted many humans with avian faces (1). Such hybrid-like creatures, neither existing in the heavenly nor the earthly realms, would have been deemed fine for illustration.

Overall, bird imagery in Semitic literature outside the Old Testament has an imaginative and mystical flare. There’s the giant ziz, the avian equivalent of leviathan, discussed by Talmud scholar Louis Ginzberg (2, 3) and the legends that King Solomon, the wise monarch and son of King David, could understand the language of birds (4). We have descriptions in The Apocalypse of Abraham, a first- or second-century CE text of pre-Rabbinic Judaism, of the great patriarch and an angel making their way to heaven by aid of a pigeon’s and turtledove’s wings (5). And in other writings, we learn that sparrows sing as spirits continue to be born, set forth from the Guf, a mysterious storehouse of souls. However, once the last spirit departs from this realm, the songs of sparrows will cease and the world will soon end (6).

Birds for Food and Sacrifice

The number of Jewish scriptures are extensive, but the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, remains a central part of the faith. Aside from those passages in Genesis devoted to the creation and great flood, the Torah addresses the role of birds principally (but not exclusively) as a food source. Numbers 11 notes how God, via a strong wind, provided quails for the hungry Israelites at one point during the group’s long journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. Also, Exodus 16:13–14 tells of these birds being sent by God, along with manna, as sustenance for Moses and his followers. Interestingly, the accounts in Exodus of how God provided for the nomadic Israelites, particularly chapters 15 and 16, are used to support the Ashkenazic Jewish practice of feeding birds on Shabbot Shirah (7, 8), which occurs in either January or February, depending on the Jewish calendar (9).

Quails are among many of the birds permitted as edible forms. However, restrictions on other avian creatures are lain out in the earliest Biblical scriptures. Prior to the Talmud’s clarifications, the Torah’s Leviticus 11:13–19 and Deuteronomy 14:11–18 issued dietary instructions for the Israelites’ consumption of birds, by specifying which fowl are not to be eaten. The reasons are debatable as to why certain birds are declared “unclean” (10); however, most of the forbidden fowl listed do consume meat. Eagles, owls, hawks, and other raptors fall into this category. Carrion feeders, such as vultures and crows, are also prohibited as food. These scriptures indicate as well that many kinds of waterfowl, ranging from a broad realm of seagulls to the larger herons, pelicans, and cormorants, are unclean. Again, note that these latter birds consume lots of fish.

Some restrictions are less obvious. For example, add to the list of the unclean, Israel’s national bird, the hoopoe, which occasionally eats small reptiles and amphibians. While this crested bird (pictured above) is associated with King Solomon (11), the creature’s habit of sifting through animal feces to find insects and of messing its nests are far from appealing characteristics. The ostrich is an intriguing entry. Primarily an herbivore, it does not feed on any creatures besides insects. The bird perhaps is banned from consumption due to its reputation for swallowing rocks and metallic objects. Of course, several passages in the Old Testament, such as Job 39:14–17, Isaiah 13:21, and Lamentations 4:3–4, speak negatively of the ostrich for other reasons: its perceived ignorance and predilection for desolate areas. Job 39:18, however, notes that the bird has the ability to outrun horses.

Besides addressing birds as a form of physical nourishment, the Torah states how some of these creatures are encouraged as offerings. The book of Leviticus cites the frequent role of birds in such customs. For example, Leviticus 1:14–17 states that only doves or pigeons should be sacrificed as burnt offerings to God. Details regarding specific situations are addressed throughout the book, such as Leviticus 5:7–10 for sin offerings and Leviticus 14:1–7 for the ritual purification of those afflicted with skin diseases. No reference is made to chickens, for at the time this book was written those birds were not available to the Israelites (12). Nevertheless, centuries later, domesticated chickens came to be accepted as atonement offerings (kapparot) on the day before Yom Kippur (13).

Birds of Ill Repute

Whereas the dove’s reputation is relatively positive and unblemished, scriptures have presented several birds in a negative light. Genesis 8:8–12 states that the first bird released was a raven, but it failed to report back to Noah and his Ark. Later, though, in I Kings 17:2–6, the raven proves much more reliable, for the prophet Elijah, while in hiding, relies daily on them to bring him food. Generally, though, due to their carrion-eating habits, ravens are associated with death and destruction. Proverbs 30:17 states that one who fails to properly respect his or her elderly parents either should or will perish in a manner that affords ravens and vultures the opportunity to feed on that person’s corpse. Isaiah 34:11–15 indicates, as part of God’s curse, that owls, ravens, and vultures will populate the devastated land of Edom, an enemy nation of the ancient Israelites.

A strong case could be made that of all birds presented in Jewish scriptures, literature, and folklore, the owl is the most despised. After all, during the medieval period, the bird came to be strongly associated with Lilith, a demoness and witch, and in some traditions, the first wife of Adam. She is even named in Isaiah 34:14 as part of the aforementioned curse on Edom. The ninth-century text Alpha Beta de-Ben Sira (or Alphabet of Ben Sira) offers a much more detailed picture of Lilith. Over time, she was taken to be more than just a temptress and disobedient free spirit; she was also blamed for strangling infants at night during their sleep (14). According to Jewish and African lore, the nocturnal cry of a nearby owl, not surprisingly, was once thought capable of inflicting death on a baby (15, 16).

In Summary

Birds, presented in various forms throughout the Judaic religion, remain a notable part of Jewish life and culture. A brief survey from just the past couple hundred years reveals the continued symbolic importance of these creatures to Jewish writers, as demonstrated in secularized works as diverse as Hayim Nahman Bialik’s poem “To the Bird,” Franz Kafka’s short story “The Vulture,” Chava Rosenfarb’s novel Bociany, Bernard Malamud’s short story “The Jewbird,” and Dahlia Ravikovitch’s poem “The Roar of Waters.” Of course, the scriptures and customs of Judaism continue today to attach significance to our winged neighbors. Many of the world’s other major religions do as well, and those traditions will be explored later.

Sources:

  1. “The Birds’ Head Haggadah: A Medieval Illuminated Manuscript with a Twist,” Jewish Heritage Online Magazine: http://jhom.com/topics/topics/birds/haggadah.htm.
  2. Ginzberg, L. “The Monstrous Ziz and Other Fantastic Birds,” Jewish Heritage Online Magazine: http://jhom.com/topics/topics/birds/ziz.html.
  3. Ginzberg, L. Legends of the Bible. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 1956, 1992. p. 15.
  4. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. pp. 258–260.
  5. Box, G.A., Landsman, J.I. (Editors and Translators). Translations of Early Documents: Series I: Palestinian Jewish Texts (Pre-Rabbinic): The Apocalypse of Abraham. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1919. Online via Marquette University: http://www.marquette.edu/maqom/box.pdf.
  6. Schwartz, H. Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. pp. 22, 164–166.
  7. Golinkin, D. “Why is Shabbat Shirah ‘for the Birds’?” Schechter on Judaism, Vol. 3, Issue No. 4, Jan. 3003. Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem: http://www.schechter.edu/insightIsrael.aspx?ID=25.
  8. “Shabbats: Special Shabbats,” Jewish Virtual Library: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/specialshabbat.html.
  9. “Jewish Holidays: Tu B’Shevat,” Jewish Virtual Library: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/holiday8.html.
  10. “Clean and Unclean Animals,” The Jewish Encyclopedia: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/4408-clean-and-unclean-animals.
  11. Ingersoll, E. p. 60.
  12. “Birds,” The Jewish Encyclopedia: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/3316-birds.
  13. “Kapparah,” The Jewish Encyclopedia: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/9204-kapparah.
  14. Schwartz, H. pp. 215–226.
  15. Ingersoll, E. p. 186.
  16. Knappert, J. The Book of African Fables. Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2001. p. 89.