Themes of Swan Maiden Lore

swanmaiden2

Birds are symbols of freedom and elusiveness, sensuality and romance, even tragic love. All these characteristics and more are prevalent in one of the most widespread of fictional narratives, the so-called swan maiden tales.

Though variations exist, these stories frequently feature beautiful women who present as swans or other avifauna1 until they disrobe to bathe or swim. Conflict ensues when a male interloper sweeps away one of the maidens to be his bride. Voyeurism, coercion, deceit, sacrifice, betrayal, and third-party meddling are common plot elements, so tales like these tend to explore a range of power dynamics. Storylines often address whether true love can develop between the maiden and her captor/rescuer.

Trials of Love

For the protagonists’ relationship to survive—and it doesn’t always—the two usually must transform psychologically (especially to nurture or rebuild trust), and in some cases, physically (so that either are both human or both avian). As an example of the latter, in an ancient Irish text, the Celtic deity Óengus turns himself into a swan so he can join his swan princess Caer Ibormeith.2, 3 In a Swedish story with a different scenario and outcome, a hunter years later returns his wife’s confiscated feathered cloak. By doing so, however, he unwittingly reveals his culpability in the garment’s theft, destroying the relationship. The wife instantly morphs back into a swan and flies away, never to return.4, 5 “Happily ever after” is not a given, but in those tales where the woman resumes form as a bird and departs, reunion is possible if the husband can prove his love by completing a difficult trek to successfully locate her.6

Different versions of swan maiden tales exist throughout the world, with the Asian continent an important source of several. A couple (“The Story of Janshah” and “Hassan of Bassora and the King’s Daughter of Jinn”) are included in the One Thousand and One Nights (or Arabian Nights).7 Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, however, is probably the most well-known example. In the nineteenth-century Russian composer’s ballet masterpiece, Odette and Prince Siegfried are tested by a scheming sorcerer and his daughter. The two lovers die tragically but are reunited happily together as spirits.8 Though Swan Lake is arguably the most famous of such tales, the oldest likely originates from ancient India in the account of King Purūravas and the celestial nymph Urvaśī, two lovers tricked into violating a vow that results in their separation.9, 10

Narratives like these clearly transcend time and cultures, probably because romantic relationships and their dynamics are of universal interest. Part of such lore’s appeal may also lie with birds in general, a subject that has long fascinated the imaginations of poets, storytellers, and artists. Swans are significant due to their associations with grace, beauty, and the otherworldly, all aspects desirable to humans. The swan maiden stories acknowledge both the affinities and differences between our world and those represented by birds. Many of these tales offer us hope that humans are capable of great change and love.

Sources:

  1. For one of the earliest studies of this subject, please refer to the two chapters devoted to swan maidens in ES Hartland’s The Science of Fairy Tales: An Inquiry into Fairy Mythology. London, UK: Walter Scott, 1891. pp. 255–332. Hartland notes that swans are not the only birds found in such stories, citing instances including doves, vultures, and other waterfowl. In some cases, the maidens do not appear as birds at all. As for men, they—rather than women—appear occasionally in avian form (e.g., the Brothers Grimm’s “Six Swans” and Wagner’s opera Lohengrin). On a related note, in the myth-inspired poems and paintings depicting the rape of Leda by the Greek god Zeus, a masculine deity is the one who morphs into a swan. This myth, however, is not considered part of swan maiden lore.
  2. Sax, B. The Serpent and the Swan: The Animal Bride in Folklore and Literature. Blacksburg, VA: McDonald & Woodward, 1998. p.64.
  3. Gantz, J. Early Irish Myths and Sagas. New York: Penguin, 1982. pp. 108–112.
  4. Yolen, J. Favorite Folktales from Around the World. New York: Pantheon, 1986, pp. 303–304.
  5. Booss, C. Scandinavian Folk & Fairy Tales: Tales from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland & Iceland. New York: Crown, 1984. pp. 248–250.
  6. DL Ashliman, Professor Emeritus of German at the University of Pittsburgh, includes several of these stories among his online collection of featured swan maiden tales: http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/swan.html.
  7. Campbell, JJ. The Way of the Animal Powers: Historical Atlas of World Mythology (Volume 1). London, UK: Alfred van der Marck, Summerfield Press, 1983. p. 186.
  8. Sax, B. pp. 161–162.
  9. Sax, B. p. 63.
  10. Leavy, BF. In Search of the Swan Maiden: A Narrative on Folklore and Gender. New York: New York University Press, 1993. pp. 33–63.
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Senseless Displays of Death

gibbetting

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

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

The Misguided Practice of Gibbeting

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

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

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

A Lesson in Empathy

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

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

Sources:

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

 

The American South: Blue Jays and Ol’ Prejudices

bluejays

In To Kill a Mockingbird, siblings Jem and Scout are excited about receiving air rifles as gifts. Atticus, their father, however is less than enthusiastic, having little to say except for one bit of brief but important advice.

“I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard,” he counsels, “but I know you’ll go after birds.” While notably declaring off limits the namesake of the novel, Atticus permits his children to take aim at other birds, naming one species in particular. “Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em.”1 His remark suggests these birds were held in the lowest regard.

Negative sentiment toward blue jays indeed was common in the South. Their occasional consumption of other birds’ eggs and nestlings probably did not help their standing. A bigger problem seems to have been the creatures’ loud and boisterous activity, as stressed in another literary classic of the American South. In William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, a group of noisy jays congregating on a mulberry tree annoy one character so much that he hurls a stone at them. His admonition, “Git on back to hell, whar you belong at,”2 is quite telling. It hints at the bird’s dark status in the folklore of the South, where at best the blue jay was thought a hapless trickster figure and at worst, a servant to Satan.

The Devil’s Little Helper                                                                                               

Sporting bright plumage and vocalizing lively raptor-like shrieks and a distinctive pump-handle call, the blue jay is among the most common of avifauna in the continental United States. The bird impressed both Emily Dickinson (poem 51) and Mark Twain (the second and third chapters of A Tramp Abroad)—though the latter did address in humorous fashion the blue jay’s poor moral character. Yet the bird never became as popular or respected as other colorful and widespread species, such as the northern cardinal, eastern bluebird, and American goldfinch. This is evident by the fact that not a single American state has chosen the blue jay as its avian representative.3

In southern states, the bird was scorned, as apparent from that region’s literature and folklore. African-American stories from the South provide some particularly keen insights into the creature’s reputation. These tales generally agreed that this bird made weekly visits to hell.4 In most cases, Br’er Jay or Mister Jay was said to go there to bring either twigs (to fuel the infernal fires) or sand (to gradually extinguish the blazes or fill in the abyss to the underworld). Such trips, often considered punishment or the result of some unwise arrangement with the devil, were believed to occur every Friday afternoon.5, 6

The bird’s plight in these stories is presented with some variety. In one tale, for instance, the blue jay attempts to bring fire to a shivering black man in need of warmth, but the bird’s theft of a flaming rock from hell does not go as planned. When confronted by the devil, the jay ends up agreeing to pay him and his wife back regularly with kindling.7 Other accounts portray the corvid as greedy and unscrupulous, as when the bird makes a bad deal with Satan for some corn.8 Taken as a whole, these tales offer greater perspective on feelings toward the bird, adding to possibly why Atticus Finch singles it out.

An Undeserved Reputation

While in Harper Lee’s 1960 masterpiece no blue jay is shot and none visits the devil, the bird’s call is heard during the pivotal Halloween night scene, just prior to the novel’s climax. A blue jay, though, is not actually the one making the sounds. Instead, a mockingbird, perched in a tree on Boo Radley’s front lawn, mimics the calls of several birds, including those of the “irascible” blue jay and ominous whippoorwill.9 The songster’s selection foreshadows both the impending volatility and surprise ahead.

As readers soon learn in this coming-of-age classic, things are not always what they seem. Hearsay and impressions can deceive; prejudices and superstition thrive in the darkness. While the book’s message, of course, applies to attitudes about people, it could as well relate to birds such as the blue jay. After all, this much-maligned bird does a lot more than clamor in backyards; it is one of North America’s most interesting and beneficial winged residents.

Sources:

  1. Lee, H. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: HarperCollins, 2002 (first published in 1960). p. 103.
  2. Faulkner, W. The Sound and the Fury. New York: Random House, 1956 (first published in 1929). p. 209.
  3. The blue jay has fared much better in Canada, where it is the provincial bird of Prince Edward Island and the mascot of Toronto’s Major League Baseball team.
  4. A couple other birds, the mockingbird and cardinal, sometimes appeared in this role. (For more info, see Pucket, NN. Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro [sic]. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1926; Greenwood Press, 1975. pp. 549–550.)
  5. Pucket, NN. pp. 549–550.
  6. Young, M. Plantation Bird Legends. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1916. pp. 122, 125, 126, 234, 237.
  7. Young, M. pp. 46–48, 51.
  8. Pucket, NN. p. 549.
  9. Lee, H. p. 293.

Lovey-Dovey Duck Lips

ducklips

“Your mouth makes a pointy beak.…
the shape… / left me feeling slightly lyrical.”
—Kate Kilalea, “You Were a Bird”

“Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize…”
—Ted Roethke, “I Knew a Woman”

We are more like birds than some of us may realize. Even in the simplest and most mundane of ways. For instance, have you noticed that when people kiss, their lips become “pursed,” slightly protruding into a “pointy beak”? I must admit that I had never given much thought to this until recently when rereading the above lines.

Neither Kilalea nor Roethke explicitly refer to kissing. However, the human mouths described in their poems, one regarding a dinner date and the other about lovemaking, conjure images for me of canoodling. Of course, poetry typically approaches its subjects indirectly, as Emily Dickinson reminds us, “tell it slant.” In poet Jane Hirshfield’s book Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, she notes, “Not everything will be given—some part of a poem’s good weight will be found outside the poem, in us.” (1) With poetry, we frequently need to read between the lines.

Traditional Birds of Love

As to why poets have long included birds in love poems makes abundant sense. Few creatures of such beauty exemplify courtship and reproduction the way our feathered friends do. They fly thousands of miles to nesting grounds, an observation elegantly described in Pablo Neruda’s poem “Migration,” an ode to birds and “the erotic urgency of life” (2). The euphemism “the birds and the bees” is a common phrase related to this biological principle.

The way we use language today indicates that birds typically accompany conversations on love. Occasionally, before a “peck” on the mouth or cheek, one lover may affectionately giggle at the other’s “duck lips.” Sometimes one may jokingly call an affectionate couple of friends “lovebirds” or say they seem just “lovey-dovey,” expressions that tap into associations first culturally embedded thousands of years ago.

Avian imagery has a long history of widespread associations with sensual desire and romance. Several winged favorites once affiliated with the Greek and Roman goddesses of love, Aphrodite and Venus respectively, include the dove, sparrow, partridge, and goose (3). References to these birds, too, abound in Renaissance works playfully devoted to the goddess and her acolytes. In ancient China, the wild goose was also considered a bird of love (4), as it was, too, in eleventh-century India for the poet Bilhana:

I remember her:
deep eyes’ glittering pupils
dancing wildly in love’s vigil,
a wild goose
in our lotus bed of passion. (5)

The waterfowl here is a symbol of the speaker’s mistress in Balhana’s Caurapancasika, just one of many works throughout the world that uses avian metaphors to express the primal power of lust and the emotional significance of love.

“Like Amorous Birds of Prey”

Though many poets have relied on doves, sparrows, and geese—those traditional birds of love—Andrew Marvell proves in his “To His Coy Mistress” that less conventional ones can also provide for moving similes:

Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball.

Passion’s illicit, consuming nature is expressed poignantly here by Marvell’s choice of raptors. Amazingly, this suggestively rousing poem was composed in the seventeenth century, during the same time that John Milton lived. An earlier love poem that features birds of prey—specifically eagles—is Geoffrey Chaucer’s much-tamer, late fourteenth-century “The Parliament of Fowls.”

As noted in a previous post, Chaucer was the first to combine St. Valentine’s Day, romantic coupling, and birds all together into one poem, themes that have since collectively resurfaced in other works, notably Elizabeth Bishop’s “Three Valentines,” John Donne’s “An Epithalamion, or Wedding Song,” and Michael Drayton’s “To His Valentine.”

For those of you interested in the history and symbolism of birds in love poetry and works of fiction, I highly recommend Leonard Lutwack’s Birds in Literature. He devotes an entire chapter to “Birds and the Erotic.”(6) While he does not mention anything about duck-lipped smooches, he covers a wide range of Western writers, from Catullus to D.H. Lawrence.

Sources:

  1. Hirshfield, J. Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. HarperCollins Publishers, 1997. p. 115.
  2. Neruda, P. “Migración”. Schmitt, J. (translator). The Poetry of Pablo Neruda. Stavans, I, et al (editors and translators). pp. 743-749.
  3. 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. 47.
  4. Armstrong, EA. pp. 42, 47.
  5. Miller, B.S. Phantasies of a Love Thief: The Caurapancasika Attributed to Bilhana. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971. p. 19.
  6. Lutwack, L. Birds in Literature. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1994. pp. 187-230.

 

Birds in Judaism and Jewish Culture

judaism_JML

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 14th-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 A.D. 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.

How One Man Forever Changed How We See the Albatross

albatross

Chances are you’ve never glimpsed an albatross in the wild. What you likely know about this bird instead persists from other sources, namely Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, a widely influential poem based loosely on a historical maritime event.

One of Literature’s Greatest Symbols

Perhaps no bird resonates more as a literary symbol than the albatross. Since these creatures spend the majority of their time at sea, people rarely see them. The same cannot be said of crows, ravens, owls, and hawks—birds with a rich symbolic tradition as well—but who are far from elusive. The scarcity of sightings is undoubtedly a contributing factor to the albatross’s enduring mystique.

For many of us, at least in Europe and North America, the thought of this sea bird instantly conjures associations with Coleridge’s famous late-18th-century poem. Again, this may be due to the fact that many of us don’t have opportunities to see an albatross for ourselves outside of photographs and documentary films. Oddly enough, even the poet who impacted the way so many people view this creature today never actually saw one! (1, 2)

Yet Coleridge’s poem has continued to shape our cultural view of the albatross as a benign emblem of nature transgressed. Not surprisingly, we come across references and allusions to the British Romantic poet’s albatross later in other major literary works, such as Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and D.H. Lawrence’s poem “Snake” (3). Coleridge’s albatross, thus, remains larger than life, continuing to live on in our collective imagination. Yet it’s also a symbol as relevant today, if not more so, than when first introduced over two centuries ago.

The Poet’s Cautionary Tale

The power of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” lies in how it exists as an amalgam of so many things. A story within a story about a sailor’s incredible journey, the poem takes the reader back in time with its archaic language to a cold, remote location near Antarctica. There, in narrative verse evocative of a ballad, we encounter superstition and haunting supernatural imagery, punctuated with a strong moral made possible by a bird metaphor.

After weeks of suffering through a storm, the ancient mariner and his crew spot an albatross through the fog. Its appearance strangely coincides with the dense clouds of smoke-like vapor. Welcomed for days by the sailors with “food and play”, the bird lingers along with the ship. However, as the troublesome fog endures, the old grey-bearded sailor eventually grows exasperated. Blaming the albatross for the horrible weather conditions, he decides to take down the bird with his crossbow. Unknowingly with this act, the mariner unleashes problems unlike any encountered before.

The old man of the sea may have been right about the albatross’s link to the fog, but he didn’t anticipate that the creature was also responsible somehow for the breeze that once filled his ship’s sails. As the winds stall, the crew’s morale falters. The sailors eventually turn on the ancient mariner (“what evil looks / Had I from old and young”), as if forcing him to wear the slain bird (“Instead of the Cross the Albatross / About my neck was hung”) (4, 5). And later, plagues ensue. Only after a change of heart towards other non-human forms of life around him and many, many travails at sea, does redemption at last come. But such salvation has its limits, for that same change of heart must also occur in all of humanity—the reason why the mariner continues to share his story.

Coleridge’s message is quite clear. Any reader could easily take his poem as an environmental cautionary tale: be warned that tampering with nature for a small group’s narrow-minded, selfish interests can provoke unintended consequences.

Based on an Actual Event?

One important source of inspiration for Coleridge included the account of Captain George Shelvocke’s early 18th-century global expedition, a long voyage beset with numerous problems. Early on, Shelvocke’s ship, the Speedwell, was separated during a storm from his larger companion vessel. By the time the skipper’s vessel had advanced beyond the Le Mair Strait, near the southern tip of South America and not far from the Antarctic Peninsula, the crew faced a horde of challenges: frigid temperatures, harsh tempests, and a lack of available fish (6).

At this point, Shelvocke recounts how his second captain, Simon Hatley, decided to shoot a black albatross. This poor lone bird had been deemed an omen, targeted for both its color and hovering by the ship for several days (7). Interestingly, Hatley seemed to have a propensity for taking to the seas on voyages that somehow would later inspire major works of literature. The Guardian’s Vanessa Thorpe notes from Robert Fowke’s The Real Ancient Mariner, a biography of Hatley, that the sailor oddly enough also had connections to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (8).

Although “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” came later—in 1798 as part of Lyrical Ballads, a collection of verse from both Coleridge and his friend William Wordsworth—Hatley’s role in the poem was more crucial than in those earlier works by Swift and Defoe. Also, Wordsworth, who had been recently reading Shelvocke’s account, seems to have been the one to have suggested the incident to Coleridge during one of their walks (9). As ornithologists Roger Lederer and Noah Strycker have noted, Coleridge never encountered a living albatross (10, 11). It’s ironic that the poet, perhaps best known for his connection primarily to this one particular bird, never actually got to see his subject gliding in all its glory over the ocean.

“A sadder and a wiser man”

Due to the popularity of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, many people today think that killing an albatross was universally considered bad luck by sailors, a surefire way to curse your voyage. But this was definitely not the case. For some seafarers, yes, harming an albatross was taboo. For others, though, killing these birds was far from prohibited, as demonstrated by Shelvocke’s account, and also by the 1857 French poem “L’Albatros” (“The Albatross”) by Charles Baudelaire. Reasons for taking down these birds included superstition, but also practical matters, as their meat could be eaten, certain bones could be made into stems for smoking pipes, and their foot webbings could be turned into tobacco pouches (12, 13). With one poem, Coleridge eventually revamped the general public’s perception of this elusive bird and our relationship with it.

In his book Birds in Literature, scholar Leonard Lutwack discusses the popular theme involving the “wanton killing of sacramental or totemic animals” and the “atonement” necessary for this aggression against nature (14). It’s a motif that occurs in several works about birds, in plays such as Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck and Anton Chekhov’s Seagull, as well as in other poems such as Robert Penn Warren’s “Red-Tail Hawk and the Pyre of Youth” and Gwen Harwood’s “Father and Child” (15). Lutwack notes all of these and more, including several works by Coleridge that revisit the theme most poignantly expressed in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.

“Both Coleridge and Melville,” Lutwack explains, “are stating the ecological principle that our survival depends on our recognition of the worth and interrelatedness of all living things” (16). That message, as many of us continue to discover, is one of growing significance in a world with the decline and disappearance of many species. Fortunately, the albatross is still around today, and lives as a poetic reminder that not only conservationists—but all of us—have lots more work to do.

Sources:

  1. Lederer, R. Amazing Birds: A Treasury of Facts and Trivia about the Avian World. London: Quarto Publishing, 2007. p. 13.
  2. Strycker, N. The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 2014. p. 259.
  3. Lutwack, L. Birds in Literature. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1994. pp. 178, 180-181.
  4. Coleridge, S.T. “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere”. Wordsworth, W., Coleridge, S.T., Owen, W.J.B. (editor). Lyrical Ballads. Second Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969. pp. 7-32.
  5. Coleridge, S.T. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. The Literature Network, Jalic Inc.: http://www.online-literature.com/coleridge/646/.
  6. Shelvocke, G. A Voyage Round the World by the Way of the Great South Sea: Performed in a Private Expedition during the War, which broke out with Spain, in the Year 1718. Second Edition. London: Printed for W. Innys and J. Richardson, M & T Longman, 1757, pp. 75-76.
  7. Shelvocke, G. pp. 75-76.
  8. Thorpe, V. “Uncovered: the man behind Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner”, 1/30/2010. The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/jan/31/man-behind-coleridges-ancient-mariner.
  9. Coleridge, S.T. p. 135.
  10. Lederer, R. p. 13.
  11. Strycker, N. p. 259.
  12. Barwell, G. Albatross. London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2014. pp. 59, 95-96.
  13. 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. 214.
  14. Lutwack, L. pp. 177-178.
  15. Lutwack, L. pp. 181-186.
  16. Lutwack, L. p. 180.

Arrrgh! Parrot Mateys!

ParrotPirate

“Here’s Cap’n Flint—I calls my parrot Cap’n Flint, after the famous buccaneer”, says Long John Silver to the young Jim Hawkins. And so with the introduction of this saucy-tongued, sugar-nibbling bird in Treasure Island arises the trope that indelibly connects pirates with these pets.

Borrowing from Robert Louis Stevenson’s late 19th-century novel, pop culture has since bolstered this image. Parrots are depicted with pirates in subsequent literature, such as the Swallows and Amazons children’s book series of English writer Arthur Ransome, and in numerous cinema features, most notably Disney’s animated version of the J.M. Barrie classic Peter Pan and also the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. And if all this wasn’t enough, a costumed parrot mascot even performs at professional baseball games for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Only One Cap’n Flint?

On the surface, the notion that a few sea marauders of the Atlantic kept pet parrots seems plausible. After all, Christopher Columbus reportedly brought back dozens of the birds from his voyages, even offering a couple Cuban Amazon parrots as gifts to Spain’s Queen Isabella (1, 2). Within years of the explorer’s first expedition to the Caribbean, the parrot trade surged. The birds fetched high prices from wealthy and high-ranking Europeans who fancied the exotic creatures (3). By the 17th and 18th centuries, buccaneers frequented tropical areas. And while there, some would have taken parrots and other exotic animals onboard, if not as pets then at least for purposes such as bribery or trade at coastal settlements (4).

Under the Black Flag, David Cordingly’s historical accounts of maritime piracy, and Parrot Culture, Bruce Boehrer’s book detailing the socio-cultural impact of his avian subject, both credit Stevenson’s novel for popularizing the pirate-parrot link (5, 6). However, no mention is made specifically of sea brigands who considered such birds as their pets. In this sense, Boehrer refers to Stevenson’s Cap’n Flint as an “artistic embellishment” (7). On the other hand, Cordingly relates several accounts of buccaneers bribing English officials, offering the birds as a form of enticement or as a shrewd manner for acquiring favors (8). Whether any pirates kept parrots as companions seems questionable. Clearly, though, the sea brigands had access to the birds, as did many adventurers of that time.

“Pieces of Eight!”

Aside from buccaneers, seaman, and merchants who sailed overseas, only the wealthiest and most well-connected of people could obtain parrots. Pirates, though, didn’t really need them as pets, even if some may have occasionally regarded parrots as “souvenirs of their travels” (9). The value of these creatures is still undeniable, but other items held much greater interest for buccaneers. For the most part, they were seeking treasure as well as the replenishment of food and drink, arms, and supplies for their ships (10).

As to the reasons behind the parrot’s popularity with European aristocrats, a couple of characteristics must be considered. First, the bird hailed from far-away origins and boasted colorful plumage. Second, along with its exotic features, the parrot’s ability to mimic human language made it a highly desirable conversation piece—literally—for collectors (11). Obviously, the repeated litany of comments from Long John Silver’s pet created a lasting impression on pirate enthusiasts. Yet for the young protagonist in Treasure Island, the experience appears to be more than just unforgettable.

Jim Hawkins reports at the end of Stevenson’s novel that he’s still haunted by nightmares of Cap’n Flint. In those dreams, the green parrot continues to squawk excitedly about Spanish silver coins. “Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!”(12)

Sources:

  1. Lederer, R. Amazing Birds: A Treasury of Facts and Trivia about the Avian World. London: Quarto Publishing, 2007. p. 81.
  2. Boehrer, B.T. Parrot Culture: Our 2500-Year-Long Fascination with the World’s Most Talkative Bird. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. p. 54.
  3. Robbins, L.E. Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots: Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century Paris. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. pp. 25-29.
  4. Cordingly, D. Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life among the Pirates. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2006. pp. 9-10.
  5. Cordingly, D. p. 8.
  6. Boehrer, B.T. pp. 114-116.
  7. Boehrer, B.T. p. 115.
  8. Cordingly, D. p. 9.
  9. Cordingly, D. p. 9.
  10. Cordingly, D, pp. 107-109.
  11. Boehrer, B.T. pp. 4-5.
  12. Stevenson, R.L. Treasure Island. New York: Penguin Group USA, 2008.