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 Superstitions Concerning Birds

[This is taken from H. Stanley Redgrove's Bygone Beliefs.}

birds

AMONGST the most remarkable of natural occurrences must be included many of the phenomena connected with the behaviour of birds.  Undoubtedly numerous species of birds are susceptible to atmospheric changes (of an electrical and barometric nature) too slight to be observed by man’s unaided senses; thus only is to be explained the phenomenon of migration and also the many other peculiarities in the behaviour of birds whereby approaching changes in the weather may be foretold.  Probably, also, this fact has much to do with the extraordinary homing instinct of pigeons.  But, of course, in the days when meteorological science had yet to be born, no such explanation as this could be known.  The ancients observed that birds by their migrations or by other peculiarities in their behaviour prognosticated coming changes in the seasons of the year and other changes connected with the weather (such as storms, etc.); they saw, too, in the homing instincts of pigeons an apparent exhibition of intelligence exceeding that of man.  What more natural, then, for them to attribute foresight to birds, and to suppose that all sorts of coming events (other than those of an atmospheric nature) might be foretold by careful observation of their flight and song?

Augury—that is, the art of divination by observing the behaviour of birds—was extensively cultivated by the Etrurians and Romans.[1] It is still used, I believe, by the natives of Samoa.  The Romans had an official college of augurs, the members of which were originally three patricians. About 300 B.C. the number of patrician augurs was increased by one, and five plebeian augurs were added.  Later the number was again increased to fifteen.  The object of augury was not so much to foretell the future as to indicate what line of action should be followed, in any given circumstances, by the nation. The augurs were consulted on all matters of importance, and the position of augur was thus one of great consequence. In what appears to be the oldest method, the augur, arrayed in a special costume, and carrying a staff with which to mark out the visible heavens into houses, proceeded to an elevated piece of ground, where a sacrifice was made and a prayer repeated.  Then, gazing towards the sky, he waited until a bird appeared.  The point in the heavens where it first made its appearance was carefully noted, also the manner and direction of its flight, and the point where it was lost sight of. From these particulars an augury was derived, but, in order to be of effect, it had to be confirmed by a further one.

[1] This is not quite an accurate definition, as “auguries” were also obtained from other animals and from celestial phenomena (e.g. lightning), etc.

 

Auguries were also drawn from the notes of birds, birds being divided by the augurs into two classes:  (i) oscines, “those which give omens by their note,” and (ii) alites, “those which afford presages by their flight.”[1] Another method of augury was performed by the feeding of chickens specially kept for this purpose.  This was done just before sunrise by the pullarius or feeder, strict silence being observed.  If the birds manifested no desire for their food, the omen was of a most direful nature.  On the other hand, if from the greediness of the chickens the grain fell from their beaks and rebounded from the ground, the augury was most favourable.  This latter augury was known as tripudium solistimum.  “Any fraud practiced by the ‘pullarius’,” writes the Rev. EDWARD SMEDLEY, “reverted to his own head.  Of this we have a memorable instance in the great battle between Papirius Cursor and the Samnites in the year of Rome 459.  So anxious were the troops for battle, that the ‘pullarius’ dared to announce to the consul a ‘tripudium solistimum,’ although the chickens refused to eat.  Papirius unhesitatingly gave the signal for fight, when his son, having discovered the false augury, hastened to communicate it to his father.  ‘Do thy part well,’ was his reply, ‘and let the deceit of the augur fall on himself.  The “tripudium” has been announced to me, and no omen could be better for the Roman army and people!’ As the troops advanced, a javelin thrown at random struck the ‘pullatius’ dead.  ‘The hand of heaven is in the battle,’ cried Papirius; ‘the guilty is punished!’ and he advanced and conquered.”[1b] A coincidence of this sort, if it really occurred, would very greatly strengthen the popular belief in auguries.

[1] PLINY: Natural History, bk. x. chap. xxii. (BOSTOCK and RILEY’S trans., vol. ii., 1855, p. 495).

[1b] Rev. EDWARD SMEDLEY, M.A.: The Occult Sciences (Encyclopaedia Metropolitana), ed. by ELIHU RICH (1855), p. 144.

 

The cock has always been reckoned a bird possessed of magic power.  At its crowing, we are told, all unquiet spirits who roam the earth depart to their dismal abodes, and the orgies of the Witches’ Sabbath terminate.  A cock is the favourite sacrifice offered to evil spirits in Ceylon and elsewhere.  Alectromancy[2] was an ancient and peculiarly senseless method of divination (so called) in which a cock was employed. The bird had to be young and quite white.  Its feet were cut off and crammed down its throat with a piece of parchment on which were written certain Hebrew words.  The cock, after the repetition of a prayer by the operator, was placed in a circle divided into parts corresponding to the letters of the alphabet, in each of which a grain of wheat was placed.  A certain psalm was recited, and then the letters were noted from which the cock picked up the grains, a fresh grain being put down for each one picked up.  These letters, properly arranged, were said to give the answer to the inquiry for which divination was made.  I am not sure what one was supposed to do if, as seems likely, the cock refused to act in the required manner.

[2] Cf. ARTHUR EDWARD WAITE:  The Occult Sciences (1891), pp. 124 and 125.

 

The owl was reckoned a bird of evil omen with the Romans, who derived this opinion from the Etrurians, along with much else of their so-called science of augury.  It was particularly dreaded if seen in a city, or, indeed, anywhere by day.  PLINY (Caius Plinius Secundus, A.D. 61-before 115) informs us that on one occasion “a horned owl entered the very sanctuary of the Capitol; . . . in consequence of which, Rome was purified on the nones of March in that year.”[1]

[1] PLINY:  Natural History, bk. x. chap. xvi. (BOSTOCK and RILEY’S trans., vol. ii., 1855, p. 492).

 

The folk-lore of the British Isles abounds with quaint beliefs and stories concerning birds.  There is a charming Welsh legend concerning the robin, which the Rev. T. F. T. DYER quotes from Notes and Queries:--“Far, far away, is a land of woe, darkness, spirits of evil, and fire.  Day by day does this little bird bear in his bill a drop of water to quench the flame.  So near the burning stream does he fly, that his dear little feathers are SCORCHED; and hence he is named Brou-rhuddyn (Breast-burnt). To serve little children, the robin dares approach the infernal pit.  No good child will hurt the devoted benefactor of man.  The robin returns from the land of fire, and therefore he feels the cold of winter far more than his brother birds.  He shivers in the brumal blast; hungry, he chirps before your door.”[2]

[2] T. F. THISELTON DYER, M.A.: English Folk-Lore (1878), pp. 65 and 66.

 

Another legend accounts for the robin’s red breast by supposing this bird to have tried to pluck a thorn from the crown encircling the brow of the crucified CHRIST, in order to alleviate His sufferings.  No doubt it is on account of these legends that it is considered a crime, which will be punished with great misfortune, to kill a robin.  In some places the same prohibition extends to the wren, which is popularly believed to be the wife of the robin.  In other parts, however, the wren is (or at least was) cruelly hunted on certain days.  In the Isle of Man the wren-hunt took place on Christmas Eve and St Stephen’s Day, and is accounted for by a legend concerning an evil fairy who lured many men to destruction, but had to assume the form of a wren to escape punishment at the hands of an ingenious knight-errant.

For several centuries there was prevalent over the whole of civilised Europe a most extraordinary superstition concerning the small Arctic bird resembling, but not so large as, the common wild goose, known as the barnacle or bernicle goose.  MAX MUELLER[1] has suggested that this word was really derived from Hibernicula, the name thus referring to Ireland, where the birds were caught; but common opinion associated the barnacle goose with the shell-fish known as the barnacle (which is found on timber exposed to the sea), supposing that the former was generated out of the latter. Thus in one old medical writer we find:  “There are founde in the north parts of Scotland, and the Ilands adjacent, called Orchades [Orkney Islands], certain trees, whereon doe growe certaine shell fishes, of a white colour tending to russet; wherein are conteined little liuing creatures: which shells in time of maturitie doe open, and out of them grow those little living things; which falling into the water, doe become foules, whom we call Barnakles . . . but the other that do fall vpon the land, perish and come to nothing: this much by the writings of others, and also from the mouths of the people of those parts....”[1b]

[1] See F. MAX MUELLER’S Lectures on the Science of Language (1885), where a very full account of the tradition concerning the origin of the barnacle goose will be found.

[1b] JOHN GERARDE:  The Herball; or, Generall Historie of Plantes (1597). 1391.

 

The writer, however, who was a well-known surgeon and botanist of his day, adds that he had personally examined certain shell-fish from Lancashire, and on opening the shells had observed within birds in various stages of development.  No doubt he was deceived by some purely superficial resemblances—for example, the feet of the barnacle fish resemble somewhat the feathers of a bird.  He gives an imaginative illustration of the barnacle fowl escaping from its shell, which is reproduced in fig. 12.

Turning now from superstitions concerning actual birds to legends of those that are purely mythical, passing reference must be made to the roc, a bird existing in Arabian legend, which we meet in the Arabian Nights, and which is chiefly remarkable for its size and strength.

The phoenix, perhaps, is of more interest.  Of “that famous bird of Arabia,” PLINY writes as follows, prefixing his description of it with the cautious remark, “I am not quite sure that its existence is not all a fable.”  “It is said that there is only one in existence in the whole world, and that that one has not been seen very often. We are told that this bird is of the size of an eagle, and has a brilliant golden plumage around the neck, while the rest of the body is of a purple colour; except the tail, which is azure, with long feathers intermingled of a roseate hue; the throat is adorned with a crest, and the head with a tuft of feathers.  The first Roman who described this bird . . . was the senator Manilius.... He tells us that no person has ever seen this bird eat, that in Arabia it is looked upon as sacred to the sun, that it lives five hundred and forty years, that when it becomes old it builds a nest of cassia and sprigs of incense, which it fills with perfumes, and then lays its body down upon them to die; that from its bones and marrow there springs at first a sort of small worm, which in time changes into a little bird; that the first thing that it does is to perform the obsequies of its predecessor, and to carry the nest entire to the city of the Sun near Panchaia, and there deposit it upon the altar of that divinity.

“The same Manilius states also, that the revolution of the great year is completed with the life of this bird, and that then a new cycle comes round again with the same characteristics as the former one, in the seasons and the appearance of the stars.  . . . This bird was brought to Rome in the censorship of the Emperor Claudius . . . and was exposed to public view.... This fact is attested by the public Annals, but there is no one that doubts that it was a fictitious phoenix only.”[1]

[1] PLINY:  Natural History, bk. x. chap. ii. (BOSTOCK and RILEY’S trans., vol. ii., 1855, PP. 479-481).

 

The description of the plumage, etc., of this bird applies fairly well, as CUVIER has pointed out,[2] to the golden pheasant, and a specimen of the latter may have been the “fictitious phoenix” referred to above.  That this bird should have been credited with the extraordinary and wholly fabulous properties related by PLINY and others is not, however, easy to understand.  The phoenix was frequently used to illustrate the doctrine of the immortality of the soul (e.g. in CLEMENT’S First Epistle to the Corinthians), and it is not impossible that originally it was nothing more than a symbol of immortality which in time became to be believed in as a really existing bird.  The fact, however, that there was supposed to be only one phoenix, and also that the length of each of its lives coincided with what the ancients termed a “great year,” may indicate that the phoenix was a symbol of cosmological periodicity.  On the other hand, some ancient writers (e.g. TACITUS, A.D. 55-120) explicitly refer to the phoenix as a symbol of the sun, and in the minds of the ancients the sun was closely connected with the idea of immortality.  Certainly the accounts of the gorgeous colours of the plumage of the phoenix might well be descriptions of the rising sun.  It appears, moreover, that the Egyptian hieroglyphic benu, {glyph}, which is a figure of a heron or crane (and thus akin to the phoenix), was employed to designate the rising sun.

[2] See CUVIER’S The Animal Kingdom, GRIFFITH’S trans., vol. viii. (1829), p. 23.

 

There are some curious Jewish legends to account for the supposed immortality of the phoenix.  According to one, it was the sole animal that refused to eat of the forbidden tree when tempted by EVE.  According to another, its immortality was conferred on it by NOAH because of its considerate behaviour in the Ark, the phoenix not clamouring for food like the other animals.[1]

[1] The existence of such fables as these shows how grossly the real meanings of the Sacred Writings have been misunderstood.

 

There is a celebrated bird in Chinese tradition, the Fung Hwang, which some sinologues identify with the phoenix of the West.[2] According to a commentator on the ‘Rh Ya, this “felicitous and perfect bird has a cock’s head, a snake’s neck, a swallow’s beak, a tortoise’s back, is of five different colours and more than six feet high.”

[2] Mr CHAS. GOULD, B.A., to whose book Mythical Monsters (1886) I am very largely indebted for my account of this bird, and from which I have culled extracts from the Chinese, is not of this opinion.  Certainly the fact that we read of Fung Hwangs in the plural, whilst tradition asserts that there is only one phoenix, seems to point to a difference in origin.

 

Another account (that in the Lun Yu Tseh Shwai Shing) tells us that “its head resembles heaven, its eye the sun, its back the moon, its wings the wind, its foot the ground, and its tail the woof.” Furthermore, “its mouth contains commands, its heart is conformable to regulations, its ear is thoroughly acute in hearing, its tongue utters sincerity, its colour is luminous, its comb resembles uprightness, its spur is sharp and curved, its voice is sonorous, and its belly is the treasure of literature.”  Like the dragon, tortoise, and unicorn, it was considered to be a spiritual creature; but, unlike the Western phoenix, more than one Fung Hwang was, as I have pointed out, believed to exist.  The birds were not always to be seen, but, according to Chinese records, they made their appearance during the reigns of certain sovereigns.  The Fung Hwang is regarded by the Chinese as an omen of great happiness and prosperity, and its likeness is embroidered on the robes of empresses to ensure success.  Probably, if the bird is not to be regarded as purely mythological and symbolic in origin, we have in the stories of it no more than exaggerated accounts of some species of pheasant.  Japanese literature contains similar stories.

Of other fabulous bird-forms mention may be made of the griffin and the harpy.  The former was a creature half eagle, half lion, popularly supposed to be the progeny of the union of these two latter.  It is described in the so-called Voiage and Travaile of Sir JOHN MAUNDEVILLE in the following terms[1]: “Sum men seyn, that thei ben the Body upward, as an Egle, and benethe as a Lyoun: and treuly thei seyn sothe, that thei ben of that schapp.  But o Griffoun hathe the body more gret and is more strong thanne 8 Lyouns, of suche Lyouns as ben o this half; and more gret and strongere, than an 100 Egles, suche as we ben amonges us.  For o Griffoun there will bere, fleynge to his Nest, a gret Hors, or 2 Oxen zoked to gidere, as thei gon at the Plowghe.  For he hathe his Talouns so longe and so large and grete, upon his Feet, as thoughe thei weren Hornes of grete Oxen or of Bugles or of Kyzn; so that men maken Cuppes of hem, to drynken of: and of hire Ribbes and of the Pennes of hire Wenges, men maken Bowes fulle strong, to schote with Arwes and Quarelle.”  The special characteristic of the griffin was its watchfulness, its chief function being thought to be that of guarding secret treasure.  This characteristic, no doubt, accounts for its frequent use in heraldry as a supporter to the arms.  It was sacred to APOLLO, the sun-god, whose chariot was, according to early sculptures, drawn by griffins.  PLINY, who speaks of it as a bird having long ears and a hooked beak, regarded it as fabulous.

[1] The Voiage and Travaile of Sir JOHN MAUNDEVILLE, Kt.  Which treateth of the Way to Hierusalem; and of Marvayles of Inde, with other Ilands and Countryes.  Now Publish’d entire from an Original MS.  in The Cotton Library (London, 1727), cap. xxvi. pp. 325 and 326.

“This work is mainly a compilation from the writings of William of Boldensele, Friar Odoric of Pordenone, Hetoum of Armenia, Vincent de Beauvais, and other geographers.  It is probable that the name John de Mandeville should be regarded as a pseudonym concealing the identity of Jean de Bourgogne, a physician at Liege, mentioned under the name of Joannes ad Barbam in the vulgate Latin version of the Travels.”  (Note in British Museum Catalogue). The work, which was first published in French during the latter part of the fourteenth century, achieved an immense popularity, the marvels that it relates being readily received by the credulous folk of that and many a succeeding day.

 

The harpies (i.e. snatchers) in Greek mythology are creatures like vultures as to their bodies, but with the faces of women, and armed with sharp claws.

“Of Monsters all, most Monstrous this; no greater Wrath God sends ‘mongst Men; it comes from depth of pitchy Hell:  And Virgin’s Face, but Womb like Gulf unsatiate hath, Her Hands are griping Claws, her Colour pale and fell.”[1]

[1] Quoted from VERGIL by JOHN GUILLIM in his A Display of Heraldry (sixth edition, 1724), p. 271.

 

We meet with the harpies in the story of PHINEUS, a son of AGENOR, King of Thrace.  At the bidding of his jealous wife, IDAEA, daughter of DARDANUS, PHINEUS put out the sight of his children by his former wife, CLEOPATRA, daughter of BOREAS.  To punish this cruelty, the gods caused him to become blind, and the harpies were sent continually to harass and affright him, and to snatch away his food or defile it by their presence.  They were afterwards driven away by his brothers-in-law, ZETES and CALAIS.  It has been suggested that originally the harpies were nothing more than personifications of the swift storm-winds; and few of the old naturalists, credulous as they were, regarded them as real creatures, though this cannot be said of all.  Some other fabulous bird-forms are to be met with in Greek and Arabian mythologies, etc., but they are not of any particular interest.  And it is time for us to conclude our present excursion, and to seek for other byways.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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