Monday, October 30, 2017

Birds in superstition and folklore

One is lucky, two is lucky, three is health, four is wealth, five sickness, and six death.
The Children's Mother Goose

The ways in which we watch and learn about birds - HD cameras, high-powered spotting scopes and lenses, and DNA analyzers - are new, but our interest in them is very old. Folklore and legends about birds exist in almost every human culture. Birds and bird-like creatures have been regarded as gods (Egypt's Horus and many Native American tribes), symbols of authority (Zeus's eagle), supernaturally wise (Athena's owl and crows and ravens in general), and harbingers of death and the dead. They are found in many sacred texts, including the Bible, the Torah, the Qur'an, the Bhagavad-gita, and countless oral traditions. To watchers who didn't have the benefit of global knowledge or a scientific framework, the fascinating and sometimes eerie lives of birds could be explained only through supernatural events or powers. Our respect and love for birds has traditionally been tempered with apprehension, since the knowledge they possess could be turned against us.

We hope you enjoy this quick round-up of bird folklore. Happy Halloween!

Birds as associates and companions of deities
Rachel Warren Chad, a co-author of Birds: Myth, lore & legend, states that Deities from cultures around the world have birds associated with them. Doves (bird of Astarte, Aphrodite/Venus, Holy Spirit), ravens (Odin’s familiars in Norse mythology), cranes (sacred bird of Hermes/Mercury, Celtic bird of the moon) and eagles (familiars of Zeus/Jupiter) are among the many species assigned such roles in myth and legend.  They fly between heaven and earth, deliver messages to and from the gods, and signify divine might.

Birds are also found in Christian folklore. In Europe, birds with bright red or pink splotches (robins, crossbills, finches) were said to have been stained with Christ's blood as they attempted to pull thorns from his body or nails from his hands and feet. Another superstition states that the robin got its red breast after taking water to thirsty sinners in Hell. The sparrow gets a bad rap, since it attended the Crucifixion to encourage the guards to torture Jesus, but it's still a very bad idea to kill a sparrow or put one in a cage. Eagles are said to go into seclusion, pluck out all of their feathers, and shed their beak and talons to live longer. While not specifically Christian, this myth (it isn't true) is usually accompanied with Christian symbolism. Eagles are also considered to be one of the four dimensions of creation and a messenger of God.

Birds as harbingers of death
It is hard to believe that a bird could be considered a harbinger of death. But in a great deal of traditional lore, birds fly between earth and heaven or earth and the realms of the dead. As a consequence, some birds became associated with death and the dead, especially dark birds, nocturnal birds, and birds with an eerie or mournful cry. Depending on where you are from, your relatives may have known that:
  • If a bird flies into your house, there will soon be a death in the family. One of the surer omens of death is a bird entering the bedroom of a sick person and landing on the bedpost. This belief is so widespread that Snopes has a refutation:
  • A white bird or a crow flying against a window at night foretells of a death in the house within a year. A pigeon flying against the window is a sign of death.
  • Seeing six crows is a sign of coming death, as is a whippoorwill singing near the house.
  • Seeing two turtle doves together in a tree means death is coming. If a sparrow attacks a swallow and throws it from its nest (on or near a home), a son will be born and a daughter will die.
  • A woodpecker knocking on the house is a death omen.
  • A peacock feather brought into the house is taunting death.
  • If you walk under a tree in the evening and an owl hoots right above your head, it means a relative or friend of yours will die within a year.
  • If an owl hoots while perched on your rooftop, death will pay a visit. Other parts of the world say that an owl simply hooting in the neighborhood is foreshadowing death nearby.
  • To hear a rooster crow at your door is a sign of death.
Birds as omens and talismans
In addition to death, birds might indicate future events or serve as intermediaries between the natural and supernatural world. Crows and ravens in particular have a large body of lore associated with them. Some cultures see them as essentially beneficial, although full of mischief, while others mistrust and fear them.
  • In Christian tradition ravens were believed to have special taste for criminals, and to enjoy plucking out the eyes of sinners, although they also fed sacred hermits and were used by Jesus as an example of God's provenance. In the Qur'an, a raven is mentioned as the creature who taught Cain how to bury his murdered brother. In the Talmud, the raven is described as having been only one of three beings on Noah's Ark that copulated during the flood and so was punished. North American and Canadian mythology depicts the raven as a Creator, a rascal, or a trickster. Raven created the world and saved all of the animals from a big flood, but he also created a great deal of trouble among humans for his own amusement...and we have Raven to thank for mosquitoes.
  • In Southeast Asia, a crow flying low across one's path as one starts on an important errand or trip is considered an omen, interpreted as favorable or not depending on the direction it crosses.
  • Ancient Greeks believed that if a single crow appeared at a wedding breakfast, there would be a divorce. 
  • In Sweden, ravens were known as the ghosts of murdered people.
  • A destroyed crow’s nest indicates a fire in the area within three days. 
  • If a crow lands on a house and caws sorrowfully, a calamity is sure to befall it. If, on the other hand, his joyful “carrow” is heard, it is a sign of good luck. 
Ravens and crows are not the only birds associated with luck.
  • It is unlucky to kill a robin or a swallow. Swallows have been considered sacred because they were thought to have flown around the cross of Calvary. In some places, the ill luck from an accidental killing of a robin or swallow can be canceled if burial is given to the creature. The poem 'The Funeral of Cock-Robin' refers to this tradition in a funny way. If you break a robin's egg, something precious to you will soon be broken.
  • In England, the stonechat is believed to be continually chatting with the Devil. In parts of the British Isles the chicken is also thought of as a bird of ill omen, due to an old idea that he “crowed for joy” at the hour of crucifixion. Magpies carry a drop of the Devil's blood under their tongues and a lone magpie loitering near your house means that the Devil is afoot and stirring up trouble!
  • In Norway, those in search of a drowned body would row around the body of water with a rooster aboard, believing that the bird would crow when the boat reached the spot where the corpse was. 
  • In Ireland, sparrows, stares and plovers are thought to be on friendly terms with the fairies. The lark and swallow are both birds of good omen, as long as the swallow does not rest on the housetop. 
  • In France, there was once a belief that quail could foretell the price of wheat with the number of their calls, prompting it to be called the “Bird of Prophecy”. The ancient Romans practiced ornithomancy, a form of divination that took omens from the flights and cries of birds. If a bird cries from the north, ill luck will ensue; if from the south, a good harvest; if from the west, good luck; and if from the east, love.
  • An American superstition holds that to possess the feathers of a peacock in your home is unlucky. It is also unlucky to have peacock feathers on the stage or comprising any part of a costume, prop, or scenery!
  • In Poland, it was believed that girls who died unmarried turned into doves, while those who died married turned into owls. It was also believed that owls did not come out during the day because they were so beautiful and would be mobbed by other birds out of jealousy.
  • Did a bird poop on you today? Too bad if it didn't, since Russians know that bird poop brings good luck! But it is bad luck to see an owl during the day (videos of owls don't count as far as we know).
  • If the first bird you see on Valentine’s Day is a goldfinch, it means your spouse will be rich.
  • Many birds are believed to carry dead souls or messages from the dead, including sparrows, blackbirds, ravens, swifts, and even doves. In France, the souls of unbaptized children who die are said to become birds until they gain entry to heaven. 
Do you feed or water birds? If not, the dead might be hearing about your bad behavior! In parts of Turkey, small vessels of water are sometimes placed upon graves for the birds to drink. Some marble tombs have basins for water as well, as birds are thought to carry messages about the living to the dead. The water is left to curry favor with the birds, which prevents them from carrying unfavorable messages to dead loved ones.  So get out there and fill those feeders before it's too late!

Things that helped me learn and write about this subject: