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Birds of a Feather 


From ancient times, birds have been regarded as having a close relationship with the various sky-gods dwelling in the heavenly vault and with all heavenly bodies and powers controlling the weather. 

Universally, different cultures’ mythologies relate how gods appeared in the shape of birds. As symbols of higher powers, birds also became vehicles of humanised representations. Therefore, in Greek art and sculpture, the god Zeus rides an eagle, whereas a swan-drawn chariot drives Apollo, and Aphrodite is borne through the air by a goose. Similarly, Asian divinities are portrayed as mounted on large birds. For instance, the Indo-Chinese warrior god Skanda rides on a peacock and Kama, the Hindu god of love, is appropriately conveyed by a parrot, this bird linked to erotic love in particular. 

A widespread belief, common to all myths, legends, and folk tales, is that humans, under certain circumstances, could understand the speech of birds or other animals. Occasionally, people were thought to be born with this gift, but more often, it was believed to be acquired by some mythical feat, such as eating a dragon’s flesh. The bird of truth motif is widespread in folk tales and myths, the recurring theme revolving around a bird revealing important information and bearing vital news. Fitting examples are the various flood myths around the globe and fairy tales in which birds deliver intelligible vocal messages. In Norse mythology, the god Odin had two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, ‘Mind’ and ‘Memory’, that roved around the world to gather news. They returned at intervals and, perching on his shoulder, whispered what they had learned into his ear. 

Linked to the idea of the bird of truth motif is the widespread belief that birds can serve as guides and oracles in augury. As messengers of higher powers and possessors of secret knowledge, birds have since earliest times been regarded as the harbingers of good and evil. Hence, their behaviour was carefully observed, and auguries drawn from their flight and actions. The ancient Greek and Roman augurs were adept at interpreting the flight of birds, a practice called ornithomancy, which was in fact observed worldwide by differing cultures. Amongst African tribes from the south to the north of the continent, the flight or chirping of birds to the right or left of a specific point was seen as an omen. The same was true of American Indian tribes, indigenous Australians, and on the continents of Asia and Europe. 

The direction and manner of flight and calls of birds with sinister associations, such as owls, ravens, or crows, tended to be feared and, hence, considered bad omens. Especially the owl  was regarded as an omen of death. Its singular hoots or shrieking, even its appearance alone, had the reputation of heralding horror and disaster. An owl on the roof or flying up against a window augured death inside the house. Shakespeare refers to ‘the owl, night’s herald’ in Venus and Adonis and the owl’s role as ‘the fatal bellman’ in Macbeth.,208 The209 owl was widely regarded as a demonic bird, housing demons and witches. In the Middle East, it is seen as embodying evil spirits, whereas in China and Japan, the barn owl is believed to be demonic and ill-omened. The bird is also regarded as unlucky by the Maoris and as a messenger of evil entities by Australian Aborigines and African tribes. In Germany, the owl was known as Hexenvogel or ‘witch’s bird’, and in Italy and Sweden, it was believed that owls had the evil eye. Its association with evil forces resulted in its use to ward off these influences; hence, a dead owl nailed to a barn door was thought to prevent fires and other disasters.

While some birds were suspiciously feared, others were eagerly anticipated, as they were the precursors of specific seasonal changes. The annual appearances and disappearances of certain birds must have seriously mystified our forefathers. Their return in spring heralded the rebirth of nature, inspiring general rejoicing, linking some birds, especially the larger species such as the goose, the crane, and the stork with the sun’s rays, which would now increase in intensity. The stork, especially, was widely considered a lucky bird, heralding the coming of spring. The word ‘stork’ comes from the Greek storge, meaning ‘strong natural affection’. These birds symbolised filial piety and were credited for their special affection for their young. A factor that might have helped create the myth that the stork delivers babies is the common belief that storks love water and frequent swamps and lakes. Ancient traditions, especially in northern European countries, contended that the souls of unborn children dwelt in these watery places. So, it was easy to link these ancient beliefs to the majestic white birds, known for the tender care of their young, as lovingly delivering a new baby to expectant parents.

Another bird joyously welcomed as heralding spring in most European countries was the cuckoo. In the United Kingdom, the cuckoo’s first calls were traditionally reported in the Times newspaper. As this event was so eagerly anticipated, many superstitious beliefs evolved around hearing the cuckoo’s first calls, the most important being that a wish was immediately to be made when hearing its first call to ensure prosperity for the year ahead and to turn any coins in one’s pocket. 

On the other hand the disappearance of various birds in autumn incited disquiet amongst people and aroused speculation. In Europe, it probably gave rise to the belief dating back to antiquity that a cuckoo turned into a hawk in winter, thereby explaining the disappearance of this bird during the cold season. Alternately, some birds were thought to visit the land of the dead, probably related to knowing that winter’s bleakness and nature’s death were now imminent. 

As messengers of the gods, birds were perceived as being wiser than humankind and holding secret knowledge. Hence, the courtship and other social displays of certain birds awakened in early societies the notion that they were engaging in some magical ceremony. It was, therefore, common to copy the birds’ rituals, believing them to promote fertility and to encourage the onset of seasonal rains. North American Indians and the Indians of Central America imitated bird behaviour in their rainmaking ceremonies. Similarly, in ancient Crete and in Japan, a crane dance was believed to produce rains; and in Yugoslavia, it was customary for boys to perform fertility dances, imitating a cock, during spring ceremonies.

Another factor that has influenced the folklore and superstition surrounding birds is their colouring. The cock’s red crown inspired tales that the cock was responsible for removing the nails from Christ’s Cross; the robin’s red breast is reputed to have originated from Christ’s blood when the bird pulled thorns from His crown; black, being linked with the devil and sorcery, connected black birds such as the crow or the raven with evil forces; whereas pure white birds were traditionally regarded as uncanny, awakening fear, because they were viewed as portents of death.

Our feathered friends are still popularly referred to in many common phrases. We speak of ‘a bird in the hand being worth two in the bush’, meaning that possession is better than expectation; we mention that ‘birds of a feather flock together’, in other words, that those with a similar mindset and taste form close associations; and we prefer to ‘kill two birds with one stone’, implying that it is advantageous to effect two objectives with only one outlay of effort and trouble. 

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