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Birds in Mythology
Among the most popular animals used in mythology is the bird. The source of countless superstitions and allegories, birds have always held a special place in the collective imagination of humanity, often seen as something pure, wise, and above reproach. Angels have, since time untold, been depicted sporting downy wings of white or soft colors. The sanctity with which humanity views our feathered friends perhaps finds its source in the genetic ease with which birds defy gravity and soar the skies, as humanity has sought to do since time began. Mythology and superstition have accompanied birds since man first saw them take to flight. They have been the focus of attention from both science and religion, as well as receiving constant exposure in popular media. Life, death, luck, and love have all been tied to the tail-feathers of these winged marvels.

Many superstitions have tied birds to the Otherworld and death, and great misfortune is often said to accompany the death of one of these graceful creatures. Indeed, common superstition has held, for millennia, that the death of a bird in close proximity to a person’s home heralds the death of a member of the family. Likewise, a bird’s entry into a home can mean either an immanent death or the arrival of an important message in the near future. However, a bird which does not enter the home has been thought just as unfortunate. Many people still believe that a bird tapping at the window is also an omen of impending death to one of the house’s occupants. This belief, associating the entry or interest of a bird in the home or its occupants, stems from the ancient belief that birds are actually the messengers of departed souls, or the souls themselves, come back to guide those soon to die.

While just any bird flying through the house might be considered a sign of trouble not far behind, the
swallow enjoys a particular infamy as a sign of malevolent fortunes, ranging anywhere from severe and life-long illness to the possibility of murder! Some ancient mythologies conclude that it is the swallow who bears the tidings of displeasure from the gods. Perhaps the swallow’s somber coloring, a dull brown, originally inspired this grim role. Unlike the unfortunate swallow, red-breasted or feathered birds have often been looked upon as passion inspiring and generally lucky. The robin, in particular, is revered in most cultures as a compassionate, fun-loving and fortunous bird.

In contrast to the general heralding nature of the swallow, and the luck of the robin, some birds have been granted dominion over the realms of war and peace, power and purity. Crows, and their raven cousins, have always held a spot in mythology as the symbols of occult knowledge and power, wisdom, and, above all, war. Associated with the Otherworld, war, and death, perhaps from their macabre attendance on the battlefield, corvids have accompanied such mythological figures as the Norse God Odin, the Greek god Apollo, and the Celtic Goddess Morrigan. Perhaps because of their connection with war and death, crows have generally been seen as symbols of ill fortune. Ravens have fared slightly better in popular lore, as the bestowers of wisdom and power. Ravens are particularly important in the lore of Britain, where they hold a place of superstitious honor in the famous London Tower. In fact, it is considered such bad luck for the ravens to leave the Tower that their wings have actually been clipped to prevent their escape.

Unlike the corvids, whose dark coloring and bloody taste for the battlefield have stripped away some of the popular preconceptions of purity associated with birds, the dove has been immortalized as the symbol of purity, grace, and unconditional love. Revered in most world cultures as a harbinger of peace and love, the dove has earned a special place in the human heart. Mythology associates doves with love and Mother goddesses such as the Persian Ishtar, the Roman Venus, and the Egyptian Isis, as well as the enigmatic figure of the Christian Holy Spirit. The dove has been hailed, over and over, in mythology as the savior of humanity. In fact, a white dove, seen flying overhead, is considered a very good omen, and many people stake their luck for the coming year on the cry of a dove. If heard while going uphill, the year is said to be full of good luck, and if heard going downhill, it is thought that misfortune will follow.

Much like the dove and robin, the
bluebird is also considered a very lucky sign, particularly when seen in the spring. Likewise, a woodpecker, when seen near the home, is considered a good omen. But, quite in contrast, the peacock is not universally seen as lucky. Though considered lucky, because its multiplicity of “eyes” was said to alert it to approaching evil, in India, and held in esteem in China and Japan, where peacocks are kept as symbols of status and wealth by the ruling families, the peacock receives only scorn from the rest of the world. The peacock’s feathers were considered the most unlucky part of the bird, because they end in round, brightly-colored shapes that look much like eyes, which some call “evil eyes.”

Perhaps the most majestic and lucky of all the birds, however, is the eagle. Universally seen as symbols of strength, swiftness and majesty, eagles have earned their place as the icons of some of the most powerful dynasties in all the world, including the Roman Empire itself, which sported an eagle as the imperial sigil. Considered a helpful messenger, delivering warnings of approaching trouble and aiding in humanity’s continued existence, the eagle has been raised up as a prophesier of grand fortunes. Evidence of the reverence given these creatures can be seen in the ancient belief that the sun was borne aloft every morning by eagles.

Most enigmatic of all birds, in superstition, however, is the cumbersome albatross. Among sailors, this large seabird is considered a harbinger of good luck. Its captivity or murder, whether deliberate or accidental, is thought to bring misfortune and woe to the ship and its crew, and death or curse to the sailor who kills it. This superstition is best emphasized in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

In reflection, it is strange to note how much superstitions have changed over time, and yet, seemed to remain just as they were when they originally sprang to common use such a long time ago. It is also strange to see how very much birds have played an intricate part in the formation of human thought and society over the centuries. Birds have maintained a vivid and encompassing part of humanity’s daily life and thought.


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