According to the Audubon Society, there are over 47 million birders in the United States alone (i). While each birder has their own reasons for why they do it, bird watching is not a new hobby. Humans have long been fascinated with our feathered friends. Almost every culture and civilization has looked toward the skies and been amazed at a bird’s ability to soar to great heights, migrate to lands once unattainable, and adapt to some of the earth’s harshest conditions. Birds were venerated by many cultures and were commonly featured in mythologies and religions in roles such as messengers to the gods, creators of the earth, or as symbols such as misfortune, freedom, or wisdom.
Some ancient cultures saw birds as the link between the earth and the heavens. Ibises were considered sacred to ancient Egyptians as Thoth, the god of the moon, wisdom, writing, mathematics, and magic, was depicted with the head of an ibis. The decurved nature of the ibis bill resembles a crescent moon, linking the earthly animals to the divine. Similarly, Horus, the god of the sky, was portrayed with the head of a falcon. To the ancient Egyptians, falcons represented divine kingship, so many pharaohs are represented with a falcon (ii).
Two of the most common birds featured in mythologies of the ancient world are crows and ravens. Ancient Celts thought The Morrighan, the goddess of protection, hunting, and war, could shapeshift into a crow. To the Celts, crows and ravens had a negative interpretation as the appearance of these birds before a battle would signify the army’s defeat (iii). The chief god in Norse mythology, Odin, had two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, which would fly throughout Midgard and then report back to Odin on what they had observed and learned. In North American folklore, ravens were multifaceted deities and the creators of the world who gave humans light, educated them on how to build canoes and houses, and supplied everyone with food, but also acted as the trickster (vi).
Like crows and ravens, vultures are a main proponent in many of the mythologies and religions throughout the world. Nekhbet, from Upper Egypt, was often shown with the head of an Egyptian Vulture and wearing clothing made from their feathers. She represented the eternal cycle of death and rebirth. In nature, vultures play a key role in their ecosystems since they consume carrion (decaying matter) and give it new life by turning it into fuel. Ancient Egyptians understood their importance, but also believed that the vulture would carry the souls of the departed to the heavens (iv).
One of the most popular myths featuring vultures involves the creation of Rome. Ancient Romans believed that birds were messengers from the gods, so they put a lot of emphasis on the meaning of their flight patterns. When trying to determine which location would make the best spot for a new city, Romulus and Remus, twin brothers, turned to augury to make the decision. Romulus wanted the city to be built on Palatine Hill, but Remus wanted Aventine Hill. After preparing each hill as a sacred space, the brothers sat on their designated land and counted the number of vultures that appeared. Remus counted only six vultures, and Romulus saw double that amount. After an argument, Remus was killed and Romulus built a city on Palatine Hill and called it Rome (vi).
Few birds have the ability to invoke awe and unease with their appearance like the owl, but owls have had contradictory roles in mythologies throughout the world. In Greek mythology, a little owl (Athene noctua) often accompanied Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war. Greek armies that spotted an owl before going into battle were said to be under Athena’s protection (v).
The nocturnal and solitary nature of most owls has instilled fear and apprehension in many cultures, so they are more commonly represented as symbols of death, misfortune, or evil. Owls in Native American folklores varied from tribe to tribe. The Apache and Cree both viewed owls as symbols of death. The Apache Indians believed the presence of an owl in a dream signified an impending death. The Cree believed that owls were connected to spirits. If a Cree responded to a boreal owl’s call and did not get a similar response back, it meant that he was going to die. Sierra Nevada Indians thought that after a person died, Great Horned Owls would transport their soul to the underworld (v).
Some cultures look toward birds to explain natural phenomena. One such myth is that of Blodeuwedd, a Welsh goddess. Lleu, a hero in Welsh mythology, was cursed by his mother so that he would never have a human wife. To combat the curse, two magicians, Math and Gwydion, created Blodeuwedd out of varying flowers for him to marry. However, Blodeuwedd despised Lleu and had an affair with Gronw Pebr while Lleu was away. Lleu was tricked into revealing the only way he could be killed, but Blodeuwedd and her lover were only able to harm Lleu before he turned himself into an eagle and fled for safety. Math and Gwydion healed him of his injuries and punished Blodeuwedd by turning her into an owl. The transformation of Blodeuwedd into an owl is symbolic of the changing of the seasons. She was born from flowers and bright lights and became a bird that thrives in the darkness, paralleling the eventual promise of autumn after the springtime blooms (vi).
Throughout history, many bird species have been held in high regard either because of their link to certain deities or as indicators of future events. Ancient humans saw the beauty and importance in many species that we take for granted now because of their common presence like the ibis or vulture. Not all myths featured birds we can find in the skies. Some revolved around mythological creatures that combined avian aspects with the features of other animals like Benu, an Egyptian bird with the body of a heron and the head of a human, Garuda from Hindu mythology that was part human and part bird, or Anzu, the ancient Sumerian bird with the head of a lion and the body of an eagle, but that’s a post for another day.
Kaitlyn Hoyt, FKWBC Intern, 2017
(i) Audubon: How to Start Birding
(ii) Porter, R. Insights into Egyptian Horus Falcon Imagery by Way of Real Falcons and Horus Falcon Influence in the Aegean in the Middle Bronze Age: Part I. Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections, 3(3), 27-38.
(iii) Myth Encyclopedia: Birds in Mythology
(iv) Rigelatin: The Egyptian Vulture
(v) The Owl Pages: Owls in Mythology & Culture
(vi) Exemplore: Bird Gods and Goddesses Associated With Birds of Flight