This will be my last post in my birds and folklore mini series, at least I think it will be… If something else catches my eye then who knows! But my plan is to move on to other bird related topics after this. For my final look at bird myths and beliefs I’m turning to the sister topics of birds as messengers and birds and gods. The two ideas overlap a lot as we’ll see but we’ll set off on this journey by thinking about birds as gods.
Bird gods appear in a number of cultures including the Nekhbet, goddess of fertility in Egypt who appeared as a vulture, the eagle and the hummingbird both appear as sun gods in parts of the world and there is the Thunderbird from native American beliefs. These are just a few examples. And it’s not surprising that gods and goddesses were depicted as birds – birds can fly which even today is a remarkable thing to think about. Back before we knew anything about flight, these creatures must have seemed even more miraculous and it’s not a big leap to then assume that they must be deities.
In addition to this, they soar through the air, high above the world to the realm of the clouds and hence, in many cultures, to the afterlife or the realm of the gods. Birds are also the closest we have to speaking animals, other than humans of course. Because of this it’s easy to imagine that they are talking to us, and for non humans to speak must surely have given them god like status.
There were also gods who could take on the form of birds, such as Odin and Hecate who could appear as raven and owl respectively. To cast gods as birds is not that surprising and as Taylor explains, they already inhabit a sort of supernatural niche:
We humans have always sought to dominate the natural world, but birds literally soar out of our reach – as far as we’re concerned, they do have superpowers! Many birds exist beyond our control and live their lives beyond our observations (or at least they did before the existence of firearms and binoculars) and that in itself is rather threatening to the human ego. Those that are active at night, or live in the most rugged and inaccessible places, seemed particularly unknowable and untouchable, so we filled in the gaps with stories and beliefs, which is really just another way to try to exert control.
Another role for birds in religion is that of familiars or symbols or companions. We have Athena and Ishtar associated with owls, Zeus with the eagle and Odin with ravens. Because of their role as familiars or companions of the gods and goddesses, birds are natural vessels for sending messages. Especially as they are unencumbered by boundaries between conscious and unconscious, the mundane and the spiritual. They can also move easily between the land, the stars and the sky, and even water if they need to. There’s pretty much nowhere that a bird can’t go – you can’t escape the message of the gods if they send it by bird!
The eagle plays the role of messenger in both ancient Greece and ancient Rome, being the messenger of Zeus and Jupiter respectively. It is a common messenger birds, possibly because of how high they fly and their regal associations. They have a very real view of the bigger picture which chimes with how many people perceive gods and goddesses. Eagles soar high above the mundane day to day, flying adeptly and freely through the skies and the realm of the mind, of knowledge and of communication.
We also see doves, cranes and many other birds cast in the role of messenger in mythology around the world. They may sing their messages to us, their very appearance may be the message itself or we may receive messages through avian tokens such as feathers and eggs. There are a vast number of pins on pinterest telling you exactly what the feather you saw on the pavement means… And we’ve already seen how birds and eggs can be used in divination which itself is a type of messenger service.
Whilst you might not fully be convinced by the idea of birds as gods, goddesses or messengers of those deities, most people would agree that to see a bird, to hear it’s song in such a way that you feel it’s just for you is a very special moment indeed.