Symbolism of Birds

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

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
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The Stone Scale of Evil

Fortuné Méaulle's (1844 - 1916) engraving after a drawing by Henri Meyer (1841 - 1899) 1891 for Le Journal illustré depicting the 10th Whitechapel Crime (the murder of Frances Coles on 13 February 1891)

The Stone Scale of Evil was created by Dr Michael Stone, an American psychiatrist and Professor of Clinical Psychiatry. It was built to be useful when diagnosing murderers, but we can use it to think about fictional characters. We are not obliged to spend a decade earning a doctorate before diagnosing fictional criminals, which is nice.

Anton Franciscus Pieck (1895 - 1987) 1939 Illustration from The Garden of the Gods, Part I. Battle of Good and Evil by Aeron Alfrey
Anton Franciscus Pieck (1895 – 1987) 1939 Illustration from The Garden of the Gods, Part I. Battle of Good and Evil by Aeron Alfrey

Do you agree with my examples?

CategoryCriteriaFictional Killer
01Those who kill in self-defense and do not show psychopathic tendenciesJessie Pinkman (Breaking Bad); Bunchy Donovan (Ray Donovan); Llewellyn Moss (No Country For Old Men); Rae Ingram (Dead Calm); Louise (Thelma & Louise)
02Jealous lovers who, though egocentric or immature, are not psychopathicArchie Noury (“A Country Killing” by Annie Proulx)
03Willing companions of killers: aberrant personality, probably impulse-ridden, with antisocial traitsLewis Whippey (Happy Valley)
04Kill in self-defense, but had been extremely provocative towards the victimSaul Goodman (Breaking Bad)
05Traumatized, desperate people who kill abusive relatives and others (e.g. to support a drug habit) but who lack significant psychopathic traits. Genuinely remorseful.Jimmy Jaspers of The Halfmen of O (not supporting a drug habit, but supporting himself financially)
06Impetuous, hotheaded murderers, yet without marked psychopathic features
07Highly narcissistic, not distinctly psychopathic people with a psychotic core who kill people close to them (jealousy an underlying motive)
08Non psychopathic people with smoldering rage who kill when rage is ignitedKevin Wetherill, John Wadsworth (Happy Valley)
09Jealous lovers with psychopathic featuresVicky Fleming (Happy Valley)
10Killers of people who were “in the way” or who killed, for example, witnesses (egocentric but not distinctly psychopathic)Ashley Cowgill (Happy Valley); Manning (“Bravado” by William Trevor)
11Psychopathic killers of people “in the way”Mike Ehrmantout, Gus Fring, Todd Alquist, Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Breaking Bad); Anton Chigurgh (No Country For Old Men)
12Power-hungry psychopaths who killed when they were “cornered”Mickey Donovan, Ed Cochran (Ray Donovan)
13Killers with inadequate, rage-filled personalities who “snapped”Tuco Salamanca (Breaking Bad);
14Ruthlessly self-centered psychopathic schemersWalter White, (Breaking Bad); Tony Soprano (The Sopranos); The Grand High Witch (The Witches by Roald Dahl); The Wicked Step-mother (fairytales such as Snow White)
15Psychopathic “cold-blooded” spree or multiple murdersKrazy-8 (Breaking Bad)
16Psychopaths committing multiple vicious actsDexter Morgan (Dexter), Villanelle (Killing Eve), Ray Donovan, Avi, Lena, Ezra Goldman, Samamtha Winslow (Ray Donovan)
17Sexually perverse serial murderers, torture-murderers (among the males, rape is the primary motive with murder to hide the evidence; Systematic torture is not a primary factor)Tommy Lee Royce (Happy Valley); Buffalo Bill (Silence of the Lambs)
18Torture-murderers with murder the primary motiveThe community behind “Singing My Sister Down” by Margo Lanagan
19Psychopaths driven to terrorism, subjugation, intimidation and rape (short of murder)
20Torture murderers with torture as the primary motive but in psychotic personalitiesBluebeard (probably)
21Psychopaths preoccupied with torture in the extreme, but not known to have committed murderGargamel (The Smurfs)
22Psychopathic torture-murderers, with torture their primary motiveJigsaw (Saw); Hughie Warriner (Dead Calm)
1928 advertising poster for the BITTER DIABLERETS aperitif

Header illustration: Fortuné Méaulle’s (1844 – 1916) engraving after a drawing by Henri Meyer (1841 – 1899) 1891 for Le Journal illustré depicting the 10th Whitechapel Crime (the murder of Frances Coles on 13 February 1891)

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Zog by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

Zog (2010) is a picture book by best-selling British team Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. Zog is regularly held up as a great feminist story for young readers. Zog interests me as an excellent example of a children’s story which looks feminist at first glance. As I often say: Inversion does not equal subversion. Dig a little deeper, and Zog is pretty far from a feminist text, unless by ‘feminist’ we mean ‘a successful subversion of essentialist masculinity’. It’s something, all right. But let’s raise the bar. A story which challenges prescribed rules about masculinity while simultaneously reinforcing essentialist ideas about femininity cannot count as a successful feminist text.

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Wheel On The Chimney by Wise Brown and Gergely 1954

Wheel On The Chimney

If you haven’t read Wheel On The Chimney (1954) by Margaret Wise Brown and Tibor Gergely, the Internet Archive has a video of a man reading it, against a backdrop of the most unsettling, grating, unpleasant muzak you’ve heard in your life.

Worse, this retro children’s story evinces a troubling conflation between blackness and villainy which publishers more commonly avoid in contemporary children’s books.

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Symbolism of Coats and Cloaks

The cloak is the garment of Kings, and the King is a symbolic archetype. Fathers and Kings are basically the same archetype in traditional stories. (Fathers are the kings of the home.)

Andrew Lloyd-Weber’s musical Joseph and the Techni-colour Dreamcoat is based on this Biblical story. Artists have taken the concept of the colourful coat and taken it to its extreme. What’s the most colourful coat you can possibly imagine? Why, it’s psychedelic, of course.

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Old Mother Frost

Old Mother Frost” is a German fairy tale also known as “Mother Holle“, “Mother Hulda” and “Frau Holle“. Across cultures, other weather conditions are used: Lady Snowstorm, Old Mother Blizzard in Russia. The Grimm Brothers collected this story for their book Children’s and Household Tales (1812). The narrative seems to comprise jigsaw pieces from Cinderella (for the wicked stepsister and mother), The Frog Princess (for the well/spring) and religious dualistic thinking. It’s clearly a story for and by women and girls. The central image of the spindle suggests it was told among spinsters. This one also has a didactic function: Good girls do housework; bad girls slack off.

New Year postcard by Schmucker
This New Year postcard by Schmucker reminds me of imagery from Mother Holle.
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Charlotte’s Web Novel Study

Charlotte's Web Cover

At almost 32,000 words, Charlotte’s Web (1952, 1963) is a middle grade novel rather than a chapter book. This is a story with many  hidden depths, which appeals to middle grade kids as well as their adult co-readers.

Below I’ll be getting into how this story appeals to both children and adults, the themes of death, the narration, characterisation and the overall story structure.

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Cannibalism in Storytelling

If you wanted to create a scary monster, the scariest ever, how would you go about it? Make it big (like an ogre). Make it invisible, so you never know when it’s there. Make it sometimes nasty, sometimes nice, like a white witch, seductive and charming, all the while scheming.

Make it unexpectedly violent. Therefore make it a woman. Worse, make it a mother. Make it a failed mother. Make it a vengeful failed mother who cooks and eats children. Make it a vengeful failed mother who eats her own children. RAW.

That, folks, is peak monster.

Actually, maybe we can go one step further and make it even worse. Make the cannibal a CHILD. Don’t blame me for that mental imagery. I didn’t invent it.

At least, that’s what I thought, until I listened to the Scale of Evil episode of Unpopular Culture podcast. At around the 20 minute mark they talk about actual instances of cannibalistic criminals in our time, and it turns out my mind hadn’t gone there. If you are hellbent on finding out what’s even worse than what I just described above, I offer only a link.

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