On a cool spring night on tribal reservation lands in southern Arizona, I sit among the men, women and children surrounding a cottonwood fire at the center of a large tipi. A drum is passed from hand to hand. A staff. A rattle. Songs are sung. We are keeping vigil through the night, struggling against the pull of sleep. Long hours pass, and suddenly I find that I am wide awake -- caught up in songs and the fast, insistent pulse of the drum, the land's heartbeat. Midnight passes, a sign is given, and people take hold of feathers and fans. The fans are made of groups of feathers stitched together on leather hand-grips decorated with bright bead work in the colors of the Four Directions (white, black, yellow and red). Feathers carry the powerful "medicine" of the beautiful birds from which they come: eagle and hawk (usually the most prized) and many other "winged relatives." Now cedar is thrown on coals of the fire, filling the night with a pungent scent; feathers stir the air, spreading blessings around the circle and carrying prayers aloft.
In the morning, when the ceremony is done, the feathers are carefully packed away, wrapped in red cloth and placed in long wooden boxes alongside rattles, cedar, tobacco and bundles of sage. A convivial feast typically follows ceremonial gatherings. As I sit with fry bread dripping with honey and chili so hot it burns my tongue, an O'Odham man squats down beside me, cowboy hat angled over his brow. "So you're off to England again?" he says. "Bring some feathers with you when you come back. They got birds over there in En-ga-land?" he adds, grinning, teasing me. "Sure," I say. "Hawks. Eagles. Their feathers were used for ceremonies and prayers, a long, long time ago. Eagles and hawks were sacred to the Celts -- the same as here." My friend is surprised, for like many Native Americans (and many Euro-Americans too), he is unaware that European peoples once practiced religions native to their soil...and that, indeed, some people still quietly follow the "old ways" today.
I remember this exchange some weeks later when I am back in England once again, standing in the Devon studio of sculptor Wendy Froud. Wendy works with imagery drawn from Celtic and other mythologies, ranging from whimsical faery figures to Green Men and Horned Women who might have stepped directly from the pages of a Robert Holdstock book (and have, in fact, inspired Rob's imagery on more than one occasion). The studio is crowded with work: masks patterned from oak and ivy leaves; a mystical "Lord and Lady of the Wood"; a brooding raven-haired "Fallen Angel," black bird wings stretched behind him. A sphinx crouches on a pile of books, soft owl wings tucked at her side. Faeries borrow the wings of birds, and lie sleeping curled within birds' nests. Feathers from buzzards, owls and ravens sit among the tools of the sculptor's trade, waiting to have their "medicine" woven into art born of ancient stories.
In the earliest art of humankind, such as the Paleolithic cave paintings of Lascaux, we find marvelous depictions of birds -- as well as human figures with the heads or wings of birds, shamanic in nature. Cloaks of feathers were traditionally worn by shamans not only in the Americas, but in Africa, Siberia, and among the early tribes of Europe. The Tuatha De Danaan, the faery race of old Ireland, sometimes appeared as birds, their necks adorned with gold and silver chains; alternately, they also took human shape wearing magical cloaks of feathers. The Celtic islands of immortality had orchards thick with birds and bees, where beautiful faery women lived in houses thatched with bright bird feathers.
Birds are messengers of the gods in myth cycles told all over the world: they carry blessings down to humankind and prayers up to the heavens. They lead wizards to the Spirit World and dead souls to the Realm Beyond; they follow heroes on quests, uncover secrets, give warning and shrewd council. The movements, cries and migratory patterns of birds were studied as oracles. In Celtic lands, ravens were domesticated as divinatory birds, although eagles, geese and the humble wren also had prophetic powers. In Norse myth, the two ravens of Odin flew throughout the world each dawn, then perched on the raven-god's shoulder to whisper news into his ears. A dove with the power of human speech sat in the branches of the sacred oak grove at Zeus's oracle at Dodona; a woodpecker was the oracular bird in groves sacred to Mars.
According to various Siberian tribes, the eagle was the very first shaman, sent to humankind by the gods to heal sickness and suffering. Frustrated that human beings could not understand its speech or ways, the bird mated with a human woman, and she soon gave birth to a child from whom all shamans are now descended. In a mystic cloak of bird feathers, the shaman chants, drums and prays him- or herself into a trance. The soul takes flight, soaring into the spirit world beyond our everyday perception. (Great care must be taken in this exercise, lest the wing-borne soul forgets its way back home.) Likewise, the shamans of Finland call upon their eagle ancestors to lead them into the spirit realms and bring them safely back again.
Shamans, like eagles, are blessed (or cursed) with the ability to cross between the human world and the realm of the gods, the lands of the living and the lands of the dead. Despite the healing powers this gives them (the "medicine" of their bird ancestry), men and women in shamanic roles were often seen as frightening figures, half-mad by any ordinary measure, poised between co-existent worlds, fully present in none. The Buriats of Siberia traced their lineage back to an eagle and a swan, honoring the ancestral swan-mother with migration ceremonies each autumn and spring. To harm a swan, or even mishandle swan feathers, could cause illness or death; likewise, to harm a woman could bring the wrath of the swans upon men.
A swan-maiden was the mother of Cuchulain, hero of Ireland's Ulster cycle, and thus the warrior had a geas (taboo) against killing these sacred birds. Swan-maidens (as well as goose- and magpie-maidens) are found in folk stories all across Europe. In a typical tale, a man spies upon a group of women bathing in a lake. When he is discovered, the women rise from the water, wrapping themselves in feather cloaks. Transforming into pure white swans, they vanishing into the sky. The man snatches up one cloak, trapping a swan-maiden in human form. He marries her and she bears him sons -- but she pines away for her own true shape. Eventually she finds the hidden cloak, immediately puts it on, transforms, and leaves -- with nary a pang of regret for those left behind. A lovely Japanese variant (retold by Grace James in Green Willow and Other Japanese Fairy Tales) concerns the elusive "Strange People" by the waters of Mio Strand. A fisherman returns to shore at night and finds a feather robe hanging from a pine branch. "Ah, the warm, sweet, fairy thing!" he says. "I'll take it home for a treasure." A maiden of the Strange People, clad only in her long black hair, runs after him -- for without her robe she cannot fly home again. The fisherman bargains with her shrewdly, and she agrees to dance for him. Thus he is witness to the mystic dance which makes the Moon turn through the sky. When it is done, she spreads rainbow-colored wings and disappears into the dawn, leaving a single grey dove's feather behind her on the strand.
In "The Children of Lir," one of the Three Great Sorrows of Irish mythology, the four children of the lord of the sea are transformed into wild swans by the magic of a jealous step-mother. Neither Lir himself nor all the great magicians of the Tuatha De Danann can mitigate the power of the curse, and the four are condemned to spend three hundred years on Lake Derryvaragh, three hundred years on the Mull of Cantyre, and a final three hundred years off the stormy coast of Mayo. During this time, the Children of Lir retain the use of human speech, and the swans are famed throughout the land for the beauty of their song. The curse is ended when a princess of the South is wed to Lairgren, king of Connacht in the North. The swan-shapes fall away at last, but now they resume their human shapes as four withered and ancient souls. They soon die, and are buried together in a single grave by the edge of the sea. For many centuries, Irishmen would not harm a swan because of this sad story -- and country folk still say that a dying swan sings a song of eerie beauty, recalling the music of the Children of Lir...and echoing the ancient Greek belief that a swan sings sweetly once in a lifetime (ie: a "swan song"), in the moments before it dies. (I recommend The Children of Lir, a picture book by Sheila MacGill-Calahan, gorgeously illustrated by the Russian painter Gennardy Spirin.)
"The Children of Lir" has strong thematic links to "The Six Swans," a famous Grimm's fairy tale, as well as its many variants (such as the "The Seven Crows"). In the German story, the sons of a king are turned into swans by a jealous stepmother; their sister wanders over the land, searching for a way to help them. To break the curse, she learns that she must weave six shirts out of star-flowers; she must accomplish this impossible task within six years; and until the job is done she is not allowed to laugh or speak. (In other versions, the coats must be made of nettles, which sting and bloody her hands. The swans, turning back to men between the hours of dusk and dawn, cannot dissuade their young sister from this grim and painful task.) A woodland king finds the silent girl, falls in love and marries her. But she will not speak, and creeps from the castle by night to seek more flowers. The king's own wicked stepmother conspires to make the silent young bride appear to be a murderess. On the day the girl is condemned to burn to death, the six swan-brothers appear overhead. She throws the shirts upon them, ends the curse, and proves her innocence. But in her haste, one star-flower shirt has been left sadly incomplete, and the youngest brother must live henceforth with one arm and one swan's wing. (For two entertaining accounts of what may have happened to the youngest brother next, see Nicholas Stuart Gray's novel The Seventh Swan and Ursula Synge's Swan's Wing.)
Crows and ravens are also birds omnipresent in myth and folklore. The crow, commonly portrayed as a trickster or thief, was considered an ominous portent -- and yet crows were also sacred to Apollo in Graeco-Roman myth; to Varuna, guardian of the sacred order in Vedic myth; and to Amaterasu Omikami, the sun-goddess of old Japan. The ancestral spirits of the Maratha in India resided in crows; in Egypt a pair of crows symbolized conjugal felicity. In the Aboriginal lore of Australia and the myths of many North American tribes, Raven appears as a dual-natured Trickster and Creator God, credited with bringing fire, light, sexuality, song, dance, and life itself to humankind. In Celtic lore, the raven belonged to Morrigan, the Irish war goddess -- as well as to Bran the Blessed in the great Welsh epic, The Mabinogion. Tradition has it that Bran's severed head is buried under the Tower of London. A ceremonial Raven Master still keeps watch over the birds of the Tower; an old custom says that if Bran's birds ever leave the Tower, the kingdom will fall. A woman I know in a village near mine has been given legal permission to keep a crippled raven as a household companion; the enormous bird cuts a dashing figure in her witchy cottage in the Devon countryside. The raven's license includes a clause that the bird will be made available to the Tower's Raven Master should it ever be needed. The old custom may be mere superstition, but the British government is taking no chances! (For a captivating look at ravens and crows, weaving indigenous North American and Celtic creation myths together, see Charles de Lint's new "Newford" novel, Someplace to Be Flying.)
Geese were holy, protected birds in many ancient societies. In Egypt, the great Nile Goose created the world by laying the cosmic egg from which the sun was hatched. The goose was sacred to Isis, Osiris, Horus and Hera, Queen of Heaven. In India, the goose -- a solar symbol -- drew the chariot of Vishnu; the wild goose, a vehicle of Brahma, represented the creative principal, learning and eloquence. In Siberia, the Goddess Toman shook feathers from her sleeve each spring. They turned into geese, carefully tended and observed by Siberian shamans. Freyja, the goddess of northern Europe who travels the land in a chariot drawn by cats, is sometimes pictured with only one human foot and one foot of a goose or swan -- an image with shamanic significance in various traditions. Berchta, the fierce German goddess (or witch) associated with the Wild Hunt, is also pictured with a single goose foot as she rides upon the backs of storms. Caesar tells us that geese were sacred in Britain, and thus taboo as food -- a custom still existent in certain Gaelic areas today. Goose-girls, talking geese, and the goose who lays golden eggs are all standard ingredients in the folk tales ("Mother Goose" tales) of Europe. The phrase "silly as a goose" is recent; Ovid called them "wiser than the dog."
The owl is a bird credited with more malevolence than any other, even though its reputation for wisdom goes back to our earliest myths. In Greece, the owl (sacred to both Athena and Demeter) was revered as a prescient creature -- yet also feared, for its call or sudden appearance could foretell a death. Lilith, Adam's wife before Eve (banished for her lack of submissiveness) was associated with owls and depicted with wings or taloned feet. In the Middle East, evil spirits took the shape of owls to steal children away -- while in Siberia, tamed owls were kept in the house as protectors of children. In Africa, sorcerers in the shape of owls caused mischief in the night. To the Ainu of Japan, the owl was an unlucky creature -- except for the Eagle Owl, revered as a mediator between humans and the gods. In North America, the symbolism of the owl varied among indigenous tribes. The Pueblo peoples considered them baleful; the Navajo believed them to be the restless, dangerous ghosts of the dead. The Pawnee and Menominee, on the other hand, related to them as protective spirits, and Tohono O'Odham medicine singers used their feathers in healing ceremonies. When we turn to Celtic traditions we find that the owl, though sacred, is an ill omen, prophesying death, illness or the loss of a woman's honor. In the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogion, the magician Gwydion takes revenge upon Blodeuwedd (the girl he made out of flowers, who married and then betrayed his son) by turning her into an owl and setting her loose into the world. (I highly recommend two novels inspired by this fascinating myth: Owl Service by Alan Garner and The Island of the Mighty by Evangeline Walton.)
The crane is another bird associated with death in the British Isles. It was one of the shapes assumed by the King of Annwn, the Celtic underworld. To the druids, cranes were portents of treachery, war, evil deeds and evil women...yet the bird enjoyed a better reputation in other lands. It was sacred to Apollo -- a messenger and a honored herald of the spring. The pure white cranes in Chinese lore inhabited the Isles of the Blest, representing immortality, prosperity, and happiness. In Japan, the crane was associated with Jorojin, a god of longevity and luck. In the folktales of Russia, Sicily, India and other cultures the crane was the "animal guide" who led the hero on his adventures.
In Celtic lore, the magpie was a bird associated with faery revels; with the spread of Christianity, however, this changed to a connection with witches and devils. In Scandinavia, magpies were said to be sorcerers flying to unholy gatherings, and yet the nesting magpie was once considered a sign of luck in those countries. In old Norse myth, Skadi (the daughter of a giant) was priestess of the magpie clan; the black and white markings of the bird represented sexual union, as well as male and female energies kept in perfect balance. In China the magpie was the Bird of Joy, and two magpies symbolized marital bliss; in Rome, magpies were sacred to Bacchus and a symbol of sensual pleasure. In England, the sighting of magpies is still considered an omen in this common folk rhyme: "One for sorrow, two for joy; three for a girl, and four for a boy. Five for silver, six for gold, and seven for a secret that's never been told."
The wren is another "faery bird": a portent of faery encounters, and sometimes a faery in disguise. The wren was sacred to Celtic druids, and to the Welsh poet-magician Taliesin, thus it was unlucky to kill the wren at any time of year except during the ceremonial "Hunting of the Wren," around the winter solstice. In this curious custom (still practiced in some rural areas of the British Isles and France), "Wren Boys" dress in rag-tag costumes, bang on pots, pans and drums, and walk in procession behind a wren killed and mounted upon a pole decorated with oak leaves and mistletoe. In some areas, Wren Boys also appear on Michaelmas, 12th Night, or St. Stephen's Day carrying a live wren from cottage to cottage (in a small "Wren House" decorated with ribbons), collecting tributes of coins and mugs of beer wherever they stop. The wren is known as the king of the birds, an honorific explained in the following story: All the birds held a parliament and decided that whoever could fly the highest and fastest would be crowned king. The eagle easily outdistanced the others, but the clever wren hid under his wing until the eagle faltered -- then the wren jumped out and flew higher.
The dove was a bird associated with the Mother Goddesses of many traditions -- symbolizing light, healing powers, and the transition from one state of existence to the next. The dove was sacred to Astarte, Ishtar, Freyja, Brighid, and Aphrodite. The bird also represented the external soul, separate from the life of the body -- and thus magicians hid their souls or hearts in the shape of doves. Doves give guidance in fairy tales, where (in contrast with their usual gentle image) they show a marked penchant for bloody retribution. White doves light upon the tree Cinderella has planted upon her mother's grave, transforming rags to riches so she can go to the prince's ball. These are the birds who warn the prince of "blood in the shoe!" when the stepsisters try to fit into the delicate slipper by hacking off their heels and toes. The birds eventually blind the treacherous sisters, pecking out their eyes. The white dove of "The Famous Flower of Serving Men" is a soul in limbo: a knight cruelly murdered by his mother-in-law. He flies through the forest shedding blood-red tears and telling his story. The woman is eventually burned. (See Delia Sherman's Through a Brazen Mirror and Ellen Kushner's Thomas the Rhymer for literary adaptations of this tale.) Murdered children in several fairy tales reappear as snow-white doves, hovering around the family home until vengeance is finally served.
;The mysterious song of the nightingale has also inspired several classic tales; most famously: "The Nightingale" by Denmark's Hans Christian Andersen and the tragic story of "The Nightingale and the Rose" by England's Oscar Wilde. (I recommend Kara Dalkey's lyrical novel The Nightingale, based on the former.) The stork is another Goddess bird -- sacred to Hera and nursing mothers, which may be why it appears in folklore carrying newborn babies to earth. The pelican is symbolic of women's faith, sacrifice, and maternal devotion -- due to the belief that it feeds its young on the blood of its own breast. Kites and gulls are the souls of dead fisherman returned to haunt the shores -- a tradition limited to the men of the sea, not their daughters or wives. "The women don't come back no more," explained one old English fisherman to folklorist Edward Armstrong. "They've seen trouble enough." The lark, the linnet, the robin, the loon...they've all engendered tales of their own, winging their way between heaven and earth.
In the short space of this column we can only begin to explore the subject of birds in ancient mythic tales and modern mythic arts. We've skipped right past the imaginary birds (such as the phoenix) and hybrid bird-creatures (harpies, gryphons, etc.)...we've missed the bird-people (Tengu) of Japan and the bird cults of South America...we've not swallowed the tongues of hawks to speak with birds in their own language. So let me send you to some good books where you'll encounter these things yourselves. I recommend: The Folklore of Birds: An Inquiry into the Origins of some Magico-Religious Traditions by Edward A. Armstrong and Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore by E. Ingersoll (originally published in 1958 and 1923 respectively, you'll find these through inter-library loans or antiquarian bookshops); Augeries and Omens: The Magical Lore of Birds by Yvonne Aburrow (marred by an overly "New Age" bent yet full of fascinating bird lore, this book is available from Capall Bann Publishing, Freshfields, Chievely, Bershire RG16 8TF, England); Ovid's Metamorphoses; Symbolic and Mythological Animals by J.C. Cooper; Animal Spirits by Nicholas J. Saunders; Celtic Heritage by Alwyn and Brinley Rees; Mabon and the Mysteries of Britain by Caitlin Matthews; Power of Raven, Wisdom of Serpent: Celtic Women's Spirituality by Noragh Jones; Earth, Air, Fire and Water: Pre-Christian Elements in British Songs, Rhymes and Ballads by R. Skelton and M. Blackwood; A Dictionary of Symbols and A Dictionary of Sacred Myth by Tom Chetwynd; Shamanism by Mircea Eliade, and Raven Tales: Traditional Stories of Native Peoples by Peter Goodchild.
England, like North America, is a land rich with ancestral stories -- including those of the "winged relatives" with whom we share the bountiful earth. When I head back to Arizona next winter, I intend to take the following prayer along with the feathers I have promised to gather. It comes from the Gaelic highlands of Scotland, recorded one hundred years ago -- but it would not have been out of place inside that tipi, among drums and cedar smoke.... Power of raven be yours, Power of eagle be yours, Power of the Fiann. Power of storm be yours, Power of moon be yours, Power of sun. Power of sea be yours, Power of land be yours, Power of heaven. Goodness of sea be yours, Goodness of earth be yours, Goodness of heaven. Each day be joyous to you, No day be grievous to you, Honor and compassion. Love of each face be yours, Death on pillow be yours, And God be with you.
About the Author: Terri Windling is a writer, artist, and editor, and the founder of the Endicott Studio and the Journal of Mythic Arts. For more information, please visit her website for more information.
Copyright © 1998 by Terri Windling. This article appeared in Realms of Fantasy magazine, 1998, and may not be reproduced in any form without the author's express written permission.
Art:"Troll Witch II" by Brian Froud, 1976 ; "Bird Folk" by Alan Lee, 2004