February 10, 2018

MYTHS OF A FEATHER: Birds in Folklore & Myths by William Gilmer

Birds have enamored mankind since our earliest days. Thousand year old petroglyphs of Thunderbirds decorate cave walls in Wisconsin, and depictions of a bird headed man drawn in southwestern France date as far back as 15,000 BC. Our eyes have always gazed at the sky and wondered about the possibilities. It’s no surprise then, that many of our myths center on the most abundant symbol of flight in our world. Our mythological relationship with birds is truly ancient. They have been used in storytelling since there were stories to tell. Some, like Poe’s “The Raven” or Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling”, find themselves cemented into our collective consciousness and are retold for generations.

Listed below are some great pieces of folklore featuring birds. Let these avian imaginings lift your muse into the clouds and give your inspiration wings.
The Cherokee have a touching tale that explains why pine trees keep their foliage during winter. One year, during the change of seasons, there was an injured swallow who was unable to make the long migration south. The swallow sent the rest of its family on their way and began trying to find a place to build a nest to ride out the winter months.

The swallow approached a mighty oak and politely asked if it could build a house in its leaves. The oak, tired from housing many birds throughout the spring and summer, refused the swallow claiming that it needed a break from nesting birds. To add insult to injury, the oak shed all of its leaves, ensuring that the swallow wouldn’t be able to make its home there.

The swallow approached the maple, the elm, and the other trees of the forest, only to receive the same response. It was only after the trees of the forest were bare, that it noticed the humble pine. Limping to the pine, tired and exhausted, the swallow explained that without a tree for its nest, it would surely die in the cold. The pine took pity on the poor sparrow and offered up its branches, promising to never shed its needles, in case it ever needed a home again.

The Jingwei is a story that comes to us from the Shan Hai Jing, a classic Chinese text concerning geography and mythology. The text has been around in some form or another since the 4th century BC.

The story tells of Nüwa, daughter of the Yan Emperor, who tragically drowns in the Eastern Sea. Nüwa is brought back to life in the body of a white beaked, red footed bird, called the Jingwei. In this new body she spends her days picking up twigs and pebbles and dropping them into the Eastern Sea. Her goal is to fill the entire sea, in an effort to prevent anyone from sharing her fate. Occasionally, the sea makes various comments, letting her know that her task is futile, that she could not hope to fill the sea even if she worked for a million years. The Jingwei doesn’t disagree, but replies that even if it takes 100 million years it’ll be worth it if she can save a single life. This folktale has actually inspired a Chinese idiom "Jingwei Tries to Fill the Sea" meaning determination against nearly impossible odds.

Birds and death have always been folkloric bedfellows. While there are innumerable instances
where birds have been labeled as bad omens (namely the crow and raven), people have seen fit to
brand them as psychopomps. Psychopomps are beings responsible for escorting souls to the afterlife. The Cahuilla people of southern California believe their personification of death, Muut, comes to people in the form of a man with an owl’s head. Owls, in fact, are regarded worldwide as guides to the beyond. The ancient Greeks considered cranes otherworldly ambassadors, while the Romans preferred eagles, which were said to fly out of the funeral pyres of famous leaders.

In eastern North America, there is an unlikely little bird that acts as a psychopomp. It is said that the call of the whippoorwill, or the presence of a flock, signifies that someone is going to die. Upon their passing, it is said that the whippoorwill swoops down and fetches up their soul. The idea that whippoorwills carry souls to the afterlife seemed to catch fire after the publication and positive reception of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror”, where it is used as a plot device.  Prior to this, it seems that the only other common recorded reference was 40 years previous in Clifton Johnson’s, “What They Say in New England”. Johnson was a folklorist who is responsible for popularizing many sayings, most notably “in like a lion out like a lamb” used to describe March weather, although the saying was coined in Britain over 100 years prior.

While birds can get a bad rap through their association with death, they can also be symbols of rebirth. The classic example of this is the Phoenix which is continually reborn from its own ashes. Many other birds, like the robin, are associated with spring, the season of new life. The robin also has close ties to Jesus who is famously claimed to have risen from the dead.

While many birds can symbolize life, none do it better than the one that delivers it to your doorstep (or chimney based on what version of the myth you read). The stork has been the Amazon delivery drone of babies for hundreds of years. This reputation seems to have its origin in Germany and the surrounding Eastern European countries. The basis for the myth is linked to the stork’s annual migration pattern. It is thought that during the celebration of the Summer Solstice (a popular time for marriage and wedding night activities) a disproportionate number of babies would be conceived. These mothers would give birth nine months later in March or April right in time for the stork’s return. Over time, people made a correlation between the arrival of the birds and an influx of births.

Birds make easy fodder for folklore. Their variety of colors and behaviors leave them open to many questions that can have creative answers. Have you ever looked out your window and wondered why the blue jay is blue, or the blackbird black? Why does the Junco only arrive in winter, or the swallow fly low when it’s about to rain? Sure you might be able to find scientific (boring) reasons, but wouldn’t it be more fun to come up with your own Enchanted answers? Let your imagination soar and give wings to your words! Just don’t forget to send your stories our way for our Fairy Tale Flash feature. We’d love to add them our beautiful brood.
William Gilmer is a contributing editor at Enchanted Conversation Magazine, and a writer and poet currently living in Michigan.
Follow him on Twitter @willwritethings 

Cover layout by Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff


AMOffenwanger said...

Love this. I did not know the bit about why the stork is associated with bringing babies - makes a lot of sense! And I love the stories of the pine tree and of the Jingwei.

Guy S. Ricketts said...

Great article, William. I will always think of the swallow story whenever I look at a pine tree, which, as you know, are very plentiful in these parts.