Birds have been creatures of the mythic imagination since the very earliest times. Various birds, from eagles to starlings, serve as messengers to the gods in stories the world over, carrying blessings to humankind and prayers up to the heavens. They lead shamans into the Spirit World and dead souls to the Realm Beyond; they follow heroes on quests, uncover secrets, give a warning and shrewd council.
The movements, cries and migratory patterns of birds have been studied as oracles. In Celtic lands, ravens were domesticated as divinatory birds, although eagles, geese, and the humble wren also had their prophetic powers. In Norse myth, the two ravens of Odin flew throughout the world each dawn, then perched on the raven gods shoulder to whisper news into his ears. A dove with the power of human speech sat in the branches of the sacred oak grove at Zeus’s oracle at Dodona; a woodpecker was the oracular bird in groves sacred to Mars.
According to various Siberian tribes, the eagle was the very first shaman, sent to humankind by the gods to heal sickness and suffering. Frustrated that human beings could not understand its speech or ways, the bird mated with a human woman, and she soon gave birth to a child from whom all shamans are now descended. In a mystic cloak of bird feathers, the shaman chants, drums and prays him- or herself into a trance. The soul takes flight, soaring into the spirit world beyond our everyday perception. (Great care must be taken in this exercise, lest the wing-borne soul forgets its way back home.)
Likewise, the shamans of Finland call upon their eagle ancestors to lead them into the spirit realms and bring them safely back again. Shamans, like eagles, are blessed (or cursed) with the ability to cross between the human world and the realm of the gods, the lands of the living and the lands of the dead. Despite the healing powers, this gives them (the “medicine” of their bird ancestry), men and women in shamanic roles were often seen as frightening figures, half-mad by any ordinary measure, poised between co-existent worlds, fully present in none. The Buriats of Siberia traced their lineage back to an eagle and a swan, honoring the ancestral swan-mother with migration ceremonies each autumn and spring. To harm a swan, or even mishandle swan feathers, could cause illness or death; likewise, to harm a woman could bring the wrath of the swans upon men.
A swan-maiden was the mother of Cuchulain, hero of Ireland’s Ulster cycle, and thus, the warrior had a geas (taboo) against killing these sacred birds. In “The Children of Lir,” one of the Three Great Sorrows of Irish mythology, the four children of the lord of the sea are transformed into wild swans by the magic of a jealous step-mother. Neither Lir himself nor all the great magicians of the Tuatha De Danann can mitigate the power of the curse, and the four are condemned to spend three hundred years on Lake Derryvaragh, three hundred years on the Mull of Cantyre, and a final three hundred years off the stormy coast of Mayo. During this time, the Children of Lir retain the use of human speech, and the swans are famed throughout the land for the beauty of their song. The curse is ended when a princess of the South is wed to Lairgren, king of Connacht in the North. The swan-shapes fall away at last, but now they resume their human shapes as four withered and ancient souls. They soon die and are buried together in a single grave by the edge of the sea. For many centuries, Irishmen would not harm a swan because of this sad story — and country folk still say that a dying swan sings a song of eerie beauty, recalling the music of the Children of Lir…and echoing the ancient Greek belief that a swan sings sweetly once in a lifetime (ie: a “swan song”), in the moments before it dies.
The Tuatha De Danaan, the fairy race of old Ireland, were known to appear in the shape of white birds, their necks adorned with gold and silver chains; alternately, they also took human shape, wearing magical cloaks of feathers. The Celtic islands of immortality had orchards thick with birds and bees, where beautiful fairy women lived in houses thatched with bright bird feathers.
Crows and ravens are also birds omnipresent in myth and folklore. The crow, commonly portrayed as a trickster or thief, was considered an ominous portent — and yet crows were also sacred to Apollo in Graeco-Roman myth; to Varuna, guardian of the sacred order in Vedic myth; and to Amaterasu Omikami, the sun-goddess of old Japan. The ancestral spirits of the Maratha in India resided in crows; in Egypt, a pair of crows symbolized conjugal felicity. In the Aboriginal lore of Australia and the myths of many North American tribes, Raven appears as a dual-natured Trickster and Creator God, credited with bringing fire, light, sexuality, song, dance, and life itself to humankind.
In Celtic lore, the raven belonged to Morrigan, the Irish war goddess — as well as to Bran the Blessed in the great Welsh epic, The Mabinogion. Tradition has it that Bran’s severed head is buried under the Tower of London. A ceremonial Raven Master still keeps watch over the birds of the Tower; an old custom says that if Bran’s birds ever leave the Tower, the kingdom will fall.
The owl is a bird credited with more malevolence than any other, even though its reputation for wisdom goes back to our earliest myths. In Greece, the owl (sacred to both Athena and Demeter) was revered as a prescient creature — yet also feared, for its call or sudden appearance could foretell a death. Lilith, Adam’s wife before Eve (banished for her lack of submissiveness) was associated with owls and depicted with wings or taloned feet.
In the Middle East, evil spirits took the shape of owls to steal children away — while in Siberia, tamed owls were kept in the house as protectors of children. In Africa, sorcerers in the shape of owls caused mischief in the night. To the Ainu of Japan, the owl was an unlucky creature — except for the Eagle Owl, revered as a mediator between humans and the gods. In North America, the symbolism of the owl varied among indigenous tribes. The Pueblo peoples considered them baleful; the Navajo believed them to be the restless, dangerous ghosts of the dead. The Pawnee and Menominee, on the other hand, related to them as protective spirits, and Tohono O’Odham medicine singers used their feathers in healing ceremonies. When we turn to Celtic traditions we find that the owl, though sacred, is an ill omen, prophesying death, illness or the loss of a woman’s honor. In the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogion, the magician Gwydion takes revenge upon Blodeuwedd (the girl he made out of flowers, who married and then betrayed his son) by turning her into an owl and setting her loose into the world. (I highly recommend two novels inspired by this fascinating myth: Owl Service by Alan Garner and The Island of the Mighty by Evangeline Walton.)
The crane is another bird associated with death in the British Isles. It was one of the shapes assumed by the King of Annwn, the Celtic underworld. To the druids, cranes were portents of treachery, war, evil deeds and evil women…yet the bird enjoyed a better reputation in other lands. It was sacred to Apollo — a messenger and an honored herald of the spring. The pure white cranes in Chinese lore inhabited the Isles of the Blest, representing immortality, prosperity, and happiness. In Japan, the crane was associated with Jorojin, a god of longevity and luck. In the folktales of Russia, Sicily, India and other cultures the crane was the “animal guide” who led the hero on his adventures; and tales about cranes who marry human men can be found throughout the far East.
In Celtic lore, the magpie was a bird associated with fairy revels; with the spread of Christianity, however, this changed to a connection with witches and devils. In Scandinavia, magpies were said to be sorcerers flying to unholy gatherings, and yet the nesting magpie was once considered a sign of luck in those countries. In old Norse myth, Skadi (the daughter of a giant) was a priestess of the magpie clan; the black and white markings of the bird represented the sexual union, as well as male and female energies, kept in perfect balance. In China, the magpie was the Bird of Joy, and two magpies symbolized marital bliss; in Rome, magpies were sacred to Bacchus and a symbol of sensual pleasure. In England, the sighting of magpies is still considered an omen in this common folk rhyme: “One for sorrow, two for joy; three for a girl, and four for a boy. Five for silver, six for gold, and seven for a secret that’s never been told.”
The wren is another “fairy bird”: a portent of fairy encounters, and sometimes a fairy in disguise. The wren was sacred to Celtic druids, and to the Welsh poet-magician Taliesin, thus it was unlucky to kill the wren at any time of year except during the ceremonial “Hunting of the Wren,” around the winter solstice. In this curious custom (still practiced in some rural areas of the British Isles and France), “Wren Boys” dress in rag-tag costumes, bang on pots, pans, and drums, and walk in procession behind a wren killed and mounted upon a pole decorated with oak leaves and mistletoe. In some areas, Wren Boys also appear on Michaelmas, 12th Night, or St. Stephen’s Day carrying a live wren from cottage to cottage (in a small “Wren House” decorated with ribbons), collecting tributes of coins and mugs of beer wherever they stop. The wren is known as the king of the birds, an honorific explained in the following story: All the birds held a parliament and decided that whoever could fly the highest and fastest would be crowned king. The eagle easily outdistanced the others, but the clever wren hid under his wing until the eagle faltered — then the wren jumped out and flew higher.
The dove is a bird associated with the Mother Goddesses of many traditions — symbolizing light, healing powers, and the transition from one state of existence to the next. The dove was sacred to Astarte, Ishtar, Freyja, Brighid, and Aphrodite. The bird also represented the external soul, separate from the life of the body — and thus, magicians hid their souls or hearts in the shape of doves. Doves give guidance in fairy tales, where (in contrast with their usual gentle image) they show a marked penchant for bloody retribution. White doves light upon the tree Cinderella has planted upon her mother’s grave, transforming rags to riches so she can go to the prince’s ball. These are the birds who warn the prince of “blood in the shoe!” when the stepsisters try to fit into the delicate slipper by hacking off their heels and toes. The birds eventually blind the treacherous sisters, pecking out their eyes. Murdered children in several fairy tales reappear as snow-white doves, hovering around the family home until vengeance is finally served. Likewise, the white dove in the Scots Border ballad “The Famous Flower of Serving Men” is also a human soul in limbo: a knight cruelly murdered by his mother-in-law. He flies through the forest shedding blood-red tears and telling his story. The woman is eventually burned. (See Delia Sherman’s Through a Brazen Mirror and Ellen Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer for literary adaptations of this tale.)
The mysterious song of the nightingale has also inspired several classic tales; most famously: “The Nightingale” by Denmark’s Hans Christian Andersen and the tragic story of “The Nightingale and the Rose” by England’s Oscar Wilde. (I recommend Kara Dalkey’s lyrical novel The Nightingale, based on the former.)
Geese were holy, protected birds in many ancient societies. In Egypt, the great Nile Goose created the world by laying the cosmic egg from which the sun was hatched. The goose was sacred to Isis, Osiris, Horus, Hera, and Aphrodite. In India, the goose — a solar symbol — drew the chariot of Vishnu; the wild goose, a vehicle of Brahma, represented the creative principal, learning, and eloquence. In Tibet, goose headed women can be found among the Dakini, which are volatile female spirits that aid or hinder one’s spiritual journey. In Siberia, the goddess Toman shook feathers from her sleeve each spring. They turned into geese, carefully tended and observed by Siberian shamans. Freyja, the goddess of northern Europe who travels the land in a chariot drawn by cats, is sometimes pictured with only one human foot and one foot of a goose or swan — an image with shamanic significance in various traditions. Berchta, the fierce German goddess (or witch) associated with the Wild Hunt, is also pictured with a single goosefoot as she rides upon the backs of storms. Caesar tells us that geese were sacred in Britain, and thus taboo as food — a custom still existent in certain Gaelic areas today. Goose-girls, talking geese, and the goose who lays golden eggs are all standard ingredients in the folk tales (“Mother Goose” tales) of Europe. The phrase “silly as a goose” is recent; Ovid called them “wiser than the dog.”
The stork is another Goddess bird — sacred to Hera and nursing mothers, which may be why it appears in folklore carrying newborn babies to earth. The pelican is symbolic of women’s faith, sacrifice, and maternal devotion — due to the belief that it feeds its young on the blood of its own breast. Kites and gulls are the souls of dead fisherman returned to haunt the shores — a tradition limited to the men of the sea, not their daughters or wives. “The women don’t come back anymore,” explained one old English fisherman to folklorist Edward Armstrong. “They’ve seen trouble enough.” The lark, the linnet, the robin, the loon…they, too, have engendered tales of their own, winging their way between heaven and earth in sacred stories, folktales, fairy tales, old rhymes and folkways from around the globe.
The following prayer comes from the Highlands of Scotland, recorded (in Gaelic) more than one hundred years ago:
Power of raven be yours,
Power of eagle be yours,
Power of the Fiann.
Power of storm be yours,
Power of moon be yours,
Power of sun.
Power of sea be yours,
Power of land be yours,
Power of heaven.
Goodness of sea be yours,
Goodness of earth be yours,
Goodness of heaven.
Each day be joyous to you,
No day be grievous to you,
Honor and compassion.
Love of each face be yours,
Death on pillow be yours,
And God be with you.
“I pray to the birds,” says Terry Tempest Williams (in her gorgeous book Refuge) “because they remind me of what I love rather than what I fear. And at the end of my prayers, they teach me how to listen.”