Birds were, and in many traditions still are, strongly associated with beliefs about the survival of death, with shamanistic practice, and with divination. The following notes attempt a brief overview of the widespread premodern conviction that birds act as intermediaries between humans and a divine realm, and point towards postmodern explorations of this terrain.
Human interest in birds goes back a long way. A mammoth ivory carving of a water bird in flight, found in a cave in the Swabian Jura, has been dated to about 30,000 years before the present. There is a finger drawn Owl in a cave at Chauvet, southern France, from the same era. The earliest known ornithomporphic figure seems to be a bird-headed woman at Peche Merle. Marija Gimbutas interpreted various Palaeolithic bird-women as early evocations of a universal Bird Goddess.
The ithyphallic ‘bird-man’ at Lascaux – with his bird mask or head, and a similarly drawn bird either perched on, or forming the carved head of, a pole beside him – has acquired iconic status, not least because it may represent a proto-shamanic scene. This possibility, popularised by Mircea Eliade, has been contested, but amongst two thousand images at Lascaux he’s the only human figure, and his location, in a deep terminal chamber, suggests a culturally sensitive function. There are historical and ethnographic accounts of recumbent figures entering trance states. Siting such emphatic bird imagery at the very depths of an important cave would certainly have been a powerful way of evoking ‘flight’, whether during a shamanic rite or at the point of death.
Although Marija Gimbutas’ conception of a universal Bird and Snake Goddess has been rejected by a subsequent generation of feminist archaeologists – Lynn Meskell argues that a metanarrative of the ‘fall’ of natural humanity from matriarchal origins gave rise to ‘an archaeology of desire’ – there is still copious archaeological evidence for the cultural importance of birds during the neolithic. Ian Hodder and Lynn Meskell, for instance, find a widespread symbolic association between birds and death across the neolithic of Turkey and the Middle East. Drawing on ethnographic parallels, archaeologists have discussed the possibility of Crane and Griffon Vulture dances at Catalhoyok. This was a culture where engagement with death was intimate and pervasive – the dead were buried beneath the floors of houses – and with distinctive Vulture iconography.
At two large neolithic burial sites in Northern Europe ( on Swedish Gotland, and in Latvia ) a striking preponderance of the wingbones of water birds was found. At some sites a particular species predominates, suggesting a totemic mutual affiliation between humans and the bird in question. The use of birds’ wings in child burials is particularly poignant. At a site in Denmark a child’s body lay on a Swan’s wing. In neolithic Estonia another child was buried holding part of a Crane’s wing in each hand.** Although we have no way of ascertaining the local meaning of cultural detail, ethnographic evidence from later periods suggests that swans and cranes would have been accorded particular significance in the Northern European Neolithic, and that birds in general would have been regarded as bearers between human and spirit worlds.
Animals, perhaps especially birds, preoccupied the ancient Egyptian imagination. Their art abounds with birds. Many of their deities were represented in bird or bird-headed form, and some were believed to manifest as birds. A creation myth describes a Goose, the Great Cackler, breaking the primordial silence and laying her cosmic egg upon the watery abyss. In his commentary on the Egyptian Book of the Dead John Taylor writes that ‘more than perhaps any other society they directed a vast amount of their material culture to counteracting death’. The Egyptian Book of the Dead contains several chapters devoted to helping souls of the deceased transmigrate into bird form in order to ‘go forth by day’ into the sunlit world. The winged Goddess Maat weighed the hearts of the dead against an Ostrich feather. The Ba-soul, or personal soul, was said to hover over the body in the form of a bird before being re-united with the universal Ka-soul. Sadly for birds such as the Sacred Ibis, the Ancient Egyptians sacrificed and mummified their objects of veneration on an industrial scale.
According to feminist accounts the prototypical Sumerian hero-myth the Epic of Gilgamesh was written during an increasingly violent patriarchal era. In one scene Gilgamesh’s second self, the hairy wild man Enkidu, has a prophetic dream about his death. In the dream a man with the expression of a Thunderbird and the talons of an Eagle, abducts him and takes him down to the house of darkness. The underworld depicted here is a fearful place whose residents see no light, eat clay and dust, have no hope of escape, and are dressed like birds in coats of feathers.
Migrating to Siberia,we find bronze age rock art that appears to prefigure the cosmology of historical shamanism, and even the ornithomorphic detail characteristic of the traditional costumes. Mircea Eliade interpreted ecstatic ‘soul flight’ as evidence that shamanism was an early precursor to transcendental religion, including the winged souls of Christianity. Although this perspective has been challenged, recent commentators still acknowledge that bird symbolism played a crucial role in shamanic practice.
As many readers will know, birdwatchers – dagil issuri in Babylon, oinoskopoi in ancient Greece – were once interpreters of bird omens. The Greek word for bird, ornis, even came to mean portent. In modern English, ‘auspicious’ derives from the Latin avis, a bird, and specere, to watch. Detailed manuals for corvid divination were published in ninth century Tibet, and not much later in Ireland. Nor surprisingly, folklorists have concluded that beliefs about birds mediating between humans and a divine realm, and human souls assuming the form of a bird, are both ancient and widespread. There is, for instance, a tradition in Britain and elsewhere, that sea birds such as Gulls and Storm Petrels can embody the souls of drowned sailors. Throughout the Hellenistic Greek world, and across the Roman world, birds eggs were placed in graves.
I became interested in this material after a series of startling encounters with birds illuminated a difficult and complex bereavement. It soon became clear to me that the rational scientific discourses of ecology and ornithology bracketed out a whole domain of experience, an entire range of phenomena, that had become fundamental to my understanding of the natural world. I also realised that I was far from alone, both in acknowledging such experiences, and in reaching this conclusion about the scientific paradigm. Many of our finest naturalists describe moments of inter-species communion, and convey a sense of what might be called the magic of nature.
Intimate, numinous, or spiritual encounters with birds often seem to occur around moments of biographical crisis, and especially -if the reports I have documented are anything to go by- around human and other-than-human deaths. Peter Fenwick, a British psychiatrist who has studied End of Life experiences, has also found that personally significant birds often appear in the flesh, or in dreams, around the time of a death. All of which opens up some very interesting questions.
As an animist I am concerned that we learn to work with birds in ways that acknowledge the depth of relationship and reciprocity that is possible across species boundaries. This, of course, necessarily entails learning about and respecting the needs of particular birds, and doing what we can to protect wild habitats in a time of anthropogenic mass extinctions.
B.T. 23/11/12, and 10/5/16.
The images are: Flying Egg, Watercolour, Feather Scroll, and one of many Bird Sketches, by Peter Goode.
A version of this article appeared in Sacred Hoop magazine.
Marija Gimbutas, Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe, 1974
Mircea Eliade, Shamanism, Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, London, Arkana 1964/1989.
Robert Wallis, Shamans/Neo-Shamans; Ecstasy, Alternative Archaeologies, and Contemporary Pagans, Routledge, 2003 ( see pp35-39 on Eliade ).
Edward Armstrong, The Folklore of Birds, Houghton Mifflin, 1959.
Lynn Meskell, Twin Peaks: the Archaeologies of Catalhoyok, pp46-62 in Goodison, L and Morris, eds. C Ancient Goddesses 1998.
Ian Hodder and Lynn Meskell, Religion in the Emergence of Civilisations, Catalhoyok as a Case Study, Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Mannerma, Kristinaa, Birds and Burials at Ajvide ( Gotland, Sweden ) and Zvejnieki ( Latvia ) about 8,000-3,900 B.P. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 27, 2008, pp201-225.
Dale Serjeantson, Birds, Cambridge Manuals in Archaeology, p345.
John H. Taylor, ed. Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, Journey through the Afterlife, British Museum Press, 2010.
Andrzej Rozwadowski, Centering Historical-Archaeological Discourses; The Prehistory of Central Asian/South Siberian Shamanism, in Whitley, Davis,S. and Hays-Gilpin,K. eds. Belief in the Past; Theoretical Approaches to the Archaeology of Religion, Left Coast Press, 2008.
Beryl Rowland, Birds with Human Souls, A Guide to Bird Symbolism, Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 1978.
Fenwick, P and Fenwick, E. (2008) The Art of Dying, London, Bloomsbury.
Fenwick, P et al, (2009) Comfort for the Dying: five year retrospective and one year prospective studies of end of life experiences. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 2009. doi: 10.1016/j.archger.2009.10.004.