Grave Matters: Avian Cemetery Art

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Many people tend to be creeped out by graveyards and memorial gardens, especially around Halloween and the Day of the Dead. Yet these places can have the opposite effect, awakening in visitors a newfound sense of the sacred and beautiful, offering an intimate perspective on history, and stoking spiritual contemplation.

Inside such sanctuaries, past the wrought iron fences, stand rows of headstones and tomb monuments (including mausoleums). On them are dates, epitaphs, and symbols, altogether the final expressions of the dead. By way of these chiseled features on marker stones, the deceased communicate with the living. Ornamentation, of which carvings and sculptures of birds are especially noteworthy, accentuates this connection.

Spiritual Symbols and Signposts

Avian iconography, among the most pervasive of contemporary animal-based cemetery themes, is widespread, having been linked to burial and entombment for millennia. The ancient Egyptians were particularly fascinated with birds in this regard. Besides mummifying ibises1 and falcons,2 they placed wooden human-headed bird figurines with their dead.3 Similarly, American Indians thousands of years ago included so-called birdstones in graves.4 In China, images of cranes were painted to decorate the tomb of a fourteenth-century Taoist priest,5 while ancient sculptures of birds atop cedar trees remain throughout Iran’s ancient Dar al-Salam cemetery.6

Winged creatures of many kinds hold spiritual significance to the deceased. Here in the United States, where the predominant religion is Christianity, the dove is the primary bird of choice.7 This is understandable considering the animal’s historical connections to ritualized purity (e.g., Leviticus 1:14–17) and symbolic importance to the Holy Spirit (e.g., Matthew 3:16, Mark 1:10, Luke 3:22, John 1:32). But it’s not the only feathered beauty to be depicted on Christian burial monuments. For example, statues and carvings of peacocks can also be seen, principally in Europe.8 Such imagery calls to mind the birds’ centuries-old association with immortality, as cited in medieval bestiaries and taught much earlier by St. Augustine, who claimed from his own personal observations that peafowl flesh would not rot.9

Special Circumstances          

While religion is a central component of most cemetery art, symbols found in graveyards are sometimes dedicated to a loved one’s heritage and occupation. Therefore, swans, hawks, and other avian iconography appear in heraldic designs on headstones, as American families have wished to accentuate their ties to European ancestry through such features.10 Also, a person’s fame and accomplishments, especially if exemplary, occasionally take symbolic form in granite and marble. Consider the carved raven on Edgar Allan Poe’s old grave marker or the avifauna depicted on John James Audubon’s memorial tomb.

On a sidenote, some cemetery pieces have been known to develop a life of their own. One of these is the Bird Girl sculpture.11 Featured on the cover of John Berendt’s 1994 book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, this bronze statue from the Bonaventure Cemetery outside Savannah, GA, emerged as a popular tourist attraction. Concerns however eventually led to the Bird Girl’s relocation; it now safely resides in the Telfair Museum’s Jepson Center, not far from Bonaventure.12

Final Respects

Though the Bird Girl no longer dwells among obelisks, crosses, tablets, and other grave art, lots of avian imagery and bird-related figures can be seen on longstanding monuments to the deceased. For people intrigued by symbology, the presence of such visuals makes for interesting sightseeing. Actual birds—not those crafted from stone—are likely to be spotted and heard, too, as memorial gardens are the unofficial bird sanctuaries of urban areas. So very little in cemeteries is creepy. On the other hand, much exists to appreciate and ponder.

Sources:

  1. Wilkinson, P, Philip, N. Mythology. New York: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2007. p. 105.
  2. Scalf, R. “The Role of Birds within the Religious Landscape of Ancient Egypt.” Bailleul-LeSuer, R (editor). Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt (publication for Oct. 15, 2012 – July 28, 2013 exhibition). The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago: Oriental Institute Museum Publications 35, 2012. pp. 34–35.
  3. Bailleul-LeSuer, R. (editor). Catalog no. 34, “Birds in Death and the Afterlife.” Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt. p. 201.
  4. Lenik, EJ. Making Pictures in Stone: American Indian Rock Art of the Northeast. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2009. p. 217.
  5. Hung, W. Art of the Yellow Springs: Understanding Chinese Tombs. London, UK: Reaktion Books, 2010. p. 61.
  6. Parsayi, M, Rad, FS, Mazloomi, SM. “Study of Graphical Features on Gravestones of an Ancient Iranian Cemetery.” Material Religion. Vol. 10, Issue 1 (March 2014). pp. 124–127.
  7. Keister, D. Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, 2004. pp. 79–80.
  8. Keister, D. pp. 83–84.
  9. Augustine of Hippo. The City of God, Books XVII–XXII (The Fathers of the Church, Volume 24). Walsh, GG, Honan, DJ (translators). Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2008 (first printed: 1954). Book XXI, chapter 4. p. 345.
  10. Clark, EW. “The Bigham Carvers of the Carolina Piedmont: Stone Images of an Emerging Sense of American Identity.” Cemeteries & Gravemarkers: Voices of American Culture. Meyer, RE (editor). Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1992. p. 41.
  11. This sculpture, one of several made by artist Sylvia Shaw Judson, consists of a young female who holds two pan-like bowls. Since no birds are depicted, the origin of the statue’s Bird Girl nickname is not apparent. The prevailing idea is that the bowls may have served as feeders. However, another possibility is that, when rainwater filled the bowls, they functioned as birdbaths.
  12. Stollznow, K. “The Haunted (Pseudo) History of Bonaventure Cemetery,” 8/3/2009. Committee for Skeptical Inquiry: http://www.csicop.org/specialarticles/show/the_haunted_pseudo_history_of_bonaventure_cemetery.
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Tweet Dreams and Flights of the Imagination

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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.

 

Wheel of Birds and Religions

Mandela

Finally finished! The series of posts on the fine and feathered in religions is now complete. To celebrate, here’s the full-view mandala. Each panel represents one of the following:

To see any of the posts, please click on the hyperlinked text (not the image).

Many thanks to everyone who has been reading this summer. Also, I am especially grateful to my wife for the beautiful illustrations. More of her artwork and blog posts are available at Red Newt Gallery. Have a wonderful week!

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.