Symbolism of Birds

Birds are much older than we are — living dinosaurs. Across cultures, birds function as smart collaborators with humans. We now know how smart (some) birds really are, but we have long had a sense of their canniness. The smartest bird in the world is currently thought to be the New Zealand Kea, which isn’t so great if you live in New Zealand and the kea is chewing the bits of rubber off your car.

New Zealand’s kakapo is also a bit of a… character.

BIRDS AND THE ANCIENT GREEKS

Birds are frequently utilised in tales of transmogrification. Wings are frequently stuck onto chimerae. This surely has something to do with humans’ long-held wish-fulfilment fantasy of being able to fly.

Take the Ancient Greek mythological siren.

Bird symbolism in the Greek imagination was common. Reverse-engineering the meaning of all these story-birds isn’t easy. For instance, we’ll never know for sure why Sirens took the form of a hybrid bird-woman, but we do know that in ancient mythology birds represented a number of things:

  • oracles
  • enchantresses
  • messengers of deities
  • mediators (between the human world and the supernatural realm)

Over the centuries, however, the Siren transformed. In the Middle Ages, the spread of Christianity throughout Europe saw the Siren morph from a bird-woman into a fish-bodied being, who personified the dangers of both the sea and female sexuality. The seventh-century medieval bestiary Liber monstruorum diversis generibus, or the “Book of Monsters,” is one of the earliest examples of this transition, describing Sirens as sea-girls who “are like human beings from the head to the navel, with the body of a maiden, but have scaly fish tails, with which they always lurk in the sea.” Illustrations from the period clearly reveal the difference; the Sirens now have voluptuous bodies, perform erotic moves, and exhibit brazen tactics of seduction, such as staring longingly into mirrors and combing their hair. These Sirens no longer symbolized the spirit, but rather, the pleasures of the flesh.

Vice

BIRDS IN HINDUISM

According to Hinduism, birds represent higher states of being.

Two birds, inseparable companions, inhabit the same tree; the first eats of the fruit of the tree, the second regards it but does not eat. The first bird is Jivâtmâ, and the second is Atmâ or pure knowledge, free and unconditioned; and when they are joined inseparably, then the one is indistinguishable from the other except in an illusory sense.

The Upanishads

There is also a famous Hindu tale about an ogre. (Ogres are found in pretty much every culture.) The ogre tells his daughter where he keeps his soul: “Sixteen miles away… is a tree. Round the tree are tigers, and bears, and scorpions, and snakes; on the top of the tree is a very great fat snake; on his head is a little cage; in the cage is a bird; and my soul is in that bird.”

We know from cave paintings that the bird had come to symbolize the soul (and also trance-like states) by the late Paleolithic era.

BIRDS AND THE EGYPTIANS

If Hindus believed the bird was a representation of the human soul, the Egyptians went more literal with it: They gave birds human heads. (“Androcephalous” birds.) The concept of the Egyptian soul is pretty complex. If we look only at the Ba part of the soul, this is supposed to fly away from the body after death.

Birds with heads are also found in art done by the Ancient Greeks and Romans.

BIRDS AND ISLAM

The pagan Arabs were especially steeped in superstitions related to birds. They believed seeing certain birds at certain times were good omens and seeing them at other times were bad omens.

“Do they not see the birds held (flying) in the midst of the sky? None holds them but Allah (none gave them the ability to fly but Allah). Verily, in this are clear Ayaat (proofs and signs) for people who believe (in the Oneness of Allah)” (16:79)

The Quran

Allah is in command of the birds as well as all of Creation. Allah decides where birds fly or roost. The flight of birds is not dependant upon where good luck or bad luck resides.

BIRDS IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

Remember that dove which Noah sent out, to see if the waters had subsided elsewhere? Everyone knows of that dove, because we see it depicted in art holding an olive leaf in its beak. Less memorable, for me at least, is the raven. Remember that? Noah sent out the raven first but it never came back. He only sent that dove out a week later. When he sent the dove out again and it didn’t come back this time, he knew waters had subsided enough for the bird to find somewhere on land.

I wonder what was supposed to have happened to that raven. Ravens today are super smart birds. I think maybe the raven was smarter than the dove and found dry land more easily. That’s why it never came back!

There’s more to this literary symbolism, of course. The raven is black and that dove is white. Ravens = bad, doves = peace. This is seen over and over again throughout our history of storytelling.

The Old Testament is all about ‘clean’ birds versus ‘dirty’ ones. So don’t be thinking that birds connected to the human soul is necessarily a good thing.

And he cried mightily with a strong voice, saying, Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird.

Revelation 18:2

When Noah gets off the ark he thanks God for the clean birds he took onto the ark with him. What’s the difference between a clean bird and a dirty bird? (Okay, ‘unclean’.) Dirty birds eat carrion. The clean birds mostly have a diet of grain, fruits, and vegetation. Humans are safer when eating ‘clean’ birds than birds who eat dead meat themselves — less chance of getting sick. However, when all the birds of the Old Testament are taken as a group, there is no clear-cut line we can draw between a clean and an unclean one. To our modern taxonomies, some of the birds on the unclean list seem a bit random.

Christiane Hancock, probably an illustration inspired by the Brothers Grimm's Seven Ravens, J.R. Witzel, magazine Jugend 1901
Christiane Hancock, probably an illustration inspired by the Brothers Grimm’s Seven Ravens, J.R. Witzel, magazine Jugend 1901

BIRDS AND JOURNEYS

In storytelling, when birds set off on a journey, the viewpoint character is often also setting out on a journey. (But when the camera pans to the sky near the end of a story, this may mean that someone has died.)

Frank Weston Benson, The Long Journey​, 1926
Frank Weston Benson, The Long Journey​, 1926

GIANT BIRDS

Giant birds symbolise a creative deity.

The Threatened Swan, Jan Asselijn, c. 1650
The Threatened Swan, Jan Asselijn, c. 1650. A swan fiercely defends its nest against a dog. In later centuries this scuffle was interpreted as a political allegory: the white swan was thought to symbolize the Dutch statesman Johan de Witt (assassinated in 1672) protecting the country from its enemies. This was the meaning attached to the painting when it became the very first acquisition to enter the Nationale Kunstgalerij (the forerunner of the Rijksmuseum) in 1880. (Rijks Museum online)
  • Hindus of Vedic times: the sun was depicted in the form of a giant bird (eagle or swan)
  • Germanic tradition: depicted some kind of solar bird, also gigantic
Henry Stacey Marks - Science is Measurement 1879
Henry Stacey Marks – Science is Measurement 1879.

BIRDS AND STORMS

According to Scandinavian mythology, a gigantic bird called Hraesvelg (or Hraesveglur) was thought to create wind by flapping its massive wings.

In North America, the supreme Being is often equated with the mythic personification of lightning and thunder as a great bird.

BIRDS AND FAIRYTALE

In fairytales, many birds can talk as well as sing. They tend to stand for amorous yearning, alongside arrows and breezes, funnily enough.

Birds are sometimes thought to be metamorphoses of someone’s lover.

How miserable it must be to be born a little bird! I am thankful that none of my children will ever be birds, for they can do nothing but cry, ‘Tweet, tweet,’ and always die of hunger in the winter.”

“Yes, you may well say that, as a clever man!” exclaimed the field-mouse, “What is the use of his twittering, for when winter comes he must either starve or be frozen to death. Still birds are very high bred.”

Tiny said nothing; but when the two others had turned their backs on the bird, she stooped down and stroked aside the soft feathers which covered the head, and kissed the closed eyelids. “Perhaps this was the one who sang to me so sweetly in the summer,” she said; “and how much pleasure it gave me, you dear, pretty bird.”

Thumbelina by Hans Christian Andersen

BIRDS AS MESSENGERS

In a number of stories about the creation of the earth (demiurgical stories) birds come from the great bird-demiurges of the primitives. These are the bearers of celestial messages (and also creators of the underworld).

This is why birds are thought to be messengers. See also the dove in the story of Noah’s ark.

BIRDS AND COLOUR

Birds inherit secondary symbolism depending on the colour of their plumage. For example:

BIRDS AND DEATH

It’s logical that we associate birds with death itself. If you sit still enough outside birds won’t notice you’re there and will walk happily around you pecking at the ground, until you move a muscle and they all scatter away.

A novel-in-verse about loss… and what happens afterwards

Twelve-year-old Birdie Briggs loves birds. They bring her comfort when she thinks about her dad, a firefighter who was killed in the line of duty. Life without her dad isn’t easy, but at least Birdie still has Mom and Maymee, and her friends Nina and Martin.

But then Maymee gets a boyfriend, Nina and Martin start dating, and Birdie’s mom starts seeing a police officer. And suddenly not even her beloved birds can lift Birdie’s spirits. Her world is changing, and Birdie wishes things would go back to how they were before. But maybe change, painful as it is, can be beautiful too.

The ultimate stillness is death. Birds will naturally reclaim the space.

Certain species of birds are more connected to death than others. Brightly coloured birds, not so much. The blacker the bird, the more we connect it to death. Birds who eat carrion and who are also black are most linked to death.

Early-twentieth century illustration by Artuš Scheiner (1863 – 1938)
Henry Stacey Marks - The Convent Raven 1870
Henry Stacey Marks – The Convent Raven 1870. The presence of the black bird shows us the man has died, or is close to death.
King Matt the First by Janusz Korczak, 1955, illustrated by Jerzy Srokowski (Polish)
King Matt the First by Janusz Korczak, 1955, illustrated by Jerzy Srokowski (Polish)
‘Poor Robin and the Fairies’ by John Anster Fitzgerald ~ 1876
‘Poor Robin and the Fairies’ by John Anster Fitzgerald ~ 1876
The Trial and Execution of the Sparrow for Killing Cock Robin
The Trial and Execution of the Sparrow for Killing Cock Robin
Bird Biographies A Guide-Book for Beginners by Alice Eliza Ball (1867-1948) Illustrated by Robert Bruce Horsfall (1869-1948) New York Dodd, Mead and Company, Inc., 1923 robin
Bird Biographies: A Guide-Book for Beginners by Alice Eliza Ball (1867-1948) Illustrated by Robert Bruce Horsfall (1869-1948) New York Dodd, Mead and Company, Inc., 1923 robin

BIRDS AS HUMAN SPIRIT

Every winged being is symbolic of spiritualisation. The bird, according to Jung, is a beneficent animal representing spirits or angels, supernatural aid, thoughts and flights of fancy.

A Dictionary of Symbols by J.E. Circlot
Erica von Kager (1890-1975)
Erica von Kager (1890-1975)

Since birds fly through the air, it follows that birds symbolise the human spirit. Birds occupy the Heavens — a space many hope to inhabit after leaving this earth. In children’s literature (so-called) the robin of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett is coded as the spirit of Colin’s dead mother, and she leads the children into the secret garden so that they can experience a spiritual awakening (or character arc).

THE FIRST SORROW BY IDA RENTOUL OUTHWAITE

When Dicky died, the great big night
Came down and covered all the light.

I climbed the hill to find a star
Where all the gold-eyed daisies are.

I could not find the littlest spark–
The stars were hid behind the dark.

The daisies shut their eyelids white,
And there was nothing but the night.

My singing bird, my sweet, my own!
Why did you leave me all alone?

You loved to sing away the hours,
And fluff your wings like yellow flowers.

I gave you dwe, and berries red,
And shining seeds, and mossy bed.

But somewhere else you longed to be,
And you loved someone more than me.

I wonder if the Fairies heard
And wanted you, my golden bird!

Or if a little Angel Boy
Came down and took you for his toy!

He took the little soul that sings,
And only left the beak and wings.

And so you died, and all the light
Was covered with the big black night.

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, Australian artist, 1931

CAGED BIRDS VERSUS FREE BIRDS

John Henry Lorimer (Scottish, 1856 - 1936) Grandmother’s Birthday
John Henry Lorimer (Scottish, 1856 – 1936) Grandmother’s Birthday

Wilderness versus civilisation: The budgie in the cage is safe, warm and fed, but has no freedom. The bird outside lives precariously but enjoys freedom. Here the look at each other to determine what they do and don’t have. Humans do the same. What have we lost and gained by living as part of industrialised society?

Gyo Fujikawa (American, 1908-1998), 'Bird Talk', cover of The Saturday Evening Post, 1962
Gyo Fujikawa (American, 1908-1998), ‘Bird Talk’, cover of The Saturday Evening Post, 1962

BIRDS AND FEMININITY

Even in modern literature, women are frequently compared to birds (and cats). There is a long history in art and storytelling of birds near women, women catching birds, women trying to catch birds… Why?

The image of Disney’s Snow White singing in the forest, so gentle and sweet that even the most timid of forest animals will approach her, is peak representation of the way we envisage perfect femininity: not one bit intimidating. So gentle and quiet, even a bird will land on her.

BIRDS AND THE MASCULINE

Weirdly, then: birds have historically linked to the phallus. But hey, show me something that hasn’t! Birds (and also fish) were originally phallic symbols endowed with the power of “heightening” (getting closer to God, and ‘causing’ orgasm, I guess.)

Once you consider the 3000 year history of men as humans made in God’s image, and women as creatures connected to the earth, this isn’t surprising at all.

ANTHROPOMORPHISED BIRDS

In children’s stories animals are frequently given human characteristics, and certain kinds of animals crop up more than others. Birds are frequently anthropomorphised.

Birds have also been anthropomorphised by very serious philosophers.

Odo of Tusculum, in his sermon XCII, describes different kinds of spirituality in men in terms of the characteristics of different kinds of birds. Some birds, he says, are guileless, such as the dove; others, cunning like the partridge; some come to the hand, like the hawk, others flee from it, like the hen; some enjoy the company of men, like the swallow; others prefer solitude and the desert, like the turtle-dove. . . . Lowflying birds symbolize an earth-bound attitude; high-flying birds, spiritual longing.

Dictionary of Symbols by J.E. Circlot

When their peregrine falcon brings down a homing pigeon carrying rubies, the Hardy brothers find themselves involved with kidnappers.

"The Heron and the Crane" Russian folk tale Illustrator V. Kuzmin, 1950s
“The Heron and the Crane” Russian folk tale Illustrator V. Kuzmin, 1950s
NC Wyeth ~ 'Herons in Summer', 1941
NC Wyeth ~ ‘Herons in Summer’, 1941
The Haunted House 'And in the weedy moat the heron,’ engraving by William Miller after Birket Foster, published in Hood's Poems p45 illustrated by Birket Foster, E. Moxon, Son & Co., London 1872
The Haunted House ‘And in the weedy moat the heron,’ engraving by William Miller after Birket Foster, published in Hood’s Poems p45 illustrated by Birket Foster, E. Moxon, Son & Co., London 1872
Rooster Hunter Illustrator V. Tauber
Rooster Hunter Illustrator V. Tauber
'Tonic Eggnog Liqueur' Poster by Aldo Mazza, 1910
‘Tonic Eggnog Liqueur’ Poster by Aldo Mazza, 1910
The Mother Goose 1882, author Eleanor W Talbot, lithographer Donaldson Brothers

BIRDS AND ALCHEMY

Bruno Liljefors, Common Swifts, 1886
Bruno Liljefors, Common Swifts, 1886

The ‘science’ of alchemy was all about birds and which direction they were flying:

  • Soaring skywards: volatilization or sublimination
  • Swooping earthwards: precipitation and condesnsation

Birds are considered volatile (rather than fixed).

FLOCKS OF BIRDS

'The dance', woodcut print by Andrew Davidson, British artist and illustrator
‘The dance’, woodcut print by Andrew Davidson, British artist and illustrator

Be wary of flocks of birds. Multiplicity is a sign of the negative. A flock of bird is a bit too similar to a ‘swarm’ (of insects). We don’t want any teeming, thanks. Nothing teeming and restless.

In the legend of Hercules, birds rise up from Lake Stymphalus. This lake stands for the stagnation of the soul and paralysis of the spirit. The birds therefore point to wicked desires.

Original British movie poster for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds 1963 adapted the novella by Daphne du Maurier and cemented birds as a horror trope in the public imagination.

BIRDS AS CREATURES OF BEAUTY

Mary Golay- The Birds, 1900
Mary Golay- The Birds, 1900
Birds, illustration by Józef Wilkon
Birds, illustration by Józef Wilkon

BIRDS AS HORROR VILLAINS

Long before Alfred Hitchcock ruined birds for many of us (especially during magpie season), Nursery Rhymes were doing a pretty good job of it.

The Mother Goose 1882, author Eleanor W Talbot, lithographer Donaldson Brothers
Eartly 19th century enfant enleve par un aigle child carried by eagle
Eartly 19th century enfant enleve par un aigle child carried by eagle

BIRDS AND FREEDOM

“I wish I had the wings to fly away from here”

BIRDS AND THEIR OPPONENTS

The archetypal opponent of the bird is the cat.

mockingbird-cat

Snakes and serpents are also enemies of birds.

Header painting: VERNEUIL, Maurice Pillard (1869-1942). L’Animal dans la décoration. Paris- Librairie centrale des Beaux-arts, [1897] Birds Snails

Puffins are island birds, returning to isles of cold climes in spring after a winter at sea, staying until about July, always reuniting with the same partner. The Inuit thought puffins had the power to change the weather and ward off storms.
St. Brendan the navigator found an island of wondrous singing birds, said to be transformed angels cast from heaven for dallying with temptation.
Lemon girl young adult novella

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