The goal of this project is to highlight the importance of birds, in both literature and in life, now and during medieval times. I chose this topic because I have always been interested in birds. Birds are always noticeable, visibly and/or sonically, but this ubiquity actually tends to make them less noticeable, or easily dismissable. People may not understand the importance of birds in literature, because they tend to ignore them in real life.
Almost all species of birds have fascinating folklore surrounding them, developed by peoples since the beginning of humanity. For starters, birds can fly, which is incredibly fascinating, especially if you were an early human. It’s not that difficult to imagine early humans worshiping birds, especially the big ones. This admiration of birds has been lost among the vast majority of people today. Perhaps this loss of admiration has to do with the ever-increasing noise pollution of our modern world, or the fact that people are busy doing things like, say, filling out Microsoft Excel documents inside of office buildings, but the fact of the matter is that birds are just easier to ignore than they were hundreds of years ago.
Northern Flicker (Yellow-Shafted)
Oftentimes, stories were told about birds to explain something in the world that was otherwise inexplicable. A good example of these kinds of stories are all the folklore about crows. Crows mean different things to different groups of people depending on which direction they’re flying, or how many there are, or what time of day they are seen. From symbolismandmetaphor.com, Jessica (no last name given) states that seeing two crows can mean change is coming, or healing will occur, or… kind of anything. They could mean good luck, or bad luck, or a baby will be born, or a death is coming, depending on what folklore you believe. The knowledge of the folklore of birds may be a useful context if one is reading literature from a part of the world where they believe certain things. With crows, the amount of folklore and superstition is so great that a specific knowledge of where the writing comes from can be immensely helpful for figuring out the symbolism of crows. With that said, simply knowing that crows hold so much superstition (without knowing exactly what) is also helpful to anyone reading literature.
Another archetypal story about birds is one that explains either the bird’s actions or physical appearance. For example: a Cherokee tale about cardinals says that they got their bright red color after helping out a wolf, who leads the male cardinal to a magic red puddle, where he jumps around and covers himself everywhere but the beak. When the female cardinal comes along, the puddle is mostly dried up and that’s why female cardinals only have a touch of red. This story is part of a long tradition of Native American stories which personify animals and give them specific traits for the whole species. For example, wolves and raccoons are tricky, foxes are sneaky, etc.
Most people know that foxes are meant to be cunning, but what about the various traits associated with birds?
In medieval literature, this same tradition of assigning human traits to animals is very common. Whalen and Bruckner in their essay in A Companion to Marie De France, state the following:
“Birds appear in 27 of the 102 fables gathered together in Marie’s col-
lection.They offer a representative cross-section of character types and
themes, from predator to victim, from kingship and justice to honor,
treason, and deception, as the strong and the weak struggle over food,
power, and place” (p. 158).
Knowing the traits commonly associated with birds during medieval times can help the reader understand messages meant to be conveyed by the author that may not be actually in the text.
Similar to attributing human traits to animals, sometimes animals are linked to entire races of people. Erika Harlitz-Kernis, an adjunct instructor at Florida International University in Miami states very clearly, “To see the antisemitism of medieval bestiaries, look for the owl.” She explains that medieval Christians thought of owls as being vile and bringing death. They also thought of Jews as being sinners. An old parable goes “Just as the owl avoids the light of day, the sinner avoids the light of Christ.” Bestiaries are collections of fables about actual or mythical animals and were widely used in medieval times. The images and stories in bestiaries carried a lot of weight which was a useful way to spread the antisemitism of the day.
In an article about birds from the website www.macbeththefilm.co.uk entitled “Birds in Macbeth”, the author reiterates the point of how owls were considered undesirable in medieval times. “Although the idea of the wise owl dates back to Ancient Greece, in the medieval and Renaissance world owls were widely detested. They were considered unclean, their hooting ‘betokening death’ if heard at night. They were, as a result, often captured, killed, and nailed to doorposts to ward off bad luck.” http://www.macbeththefilm.co.uk/birds-in-macbeth/
In Book 4 of Milton’s Paradise Lost Satan disguises himself as a cormorant. These waterbirds are large and black and are known to dry their wings by spreading them very wide which makes them look imposing. (From www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/cormorant/)
“Thence up he flew, and on the Tree of Life,
The middle Tree and highest there that grew, [ 195 ]
Sat like a Cormorant; yet not true Life
Thereby regaind, but sat devising Death
To them who liv’d; nor on the vertue thought
Of that life-giving Plant, but only us’d
For prospect, what well us’d had bin the pledge [ 200 ]
It makes sense that a cormorant would be a good disguise for Satan, but if a reader was unaware of the physical characteristics of a cormorant and its reputation, then the appearance of a cormorant would seem random.
In Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World, goose-like bird-men appear in the story to explain to the Empress the wonders of the moon and stars. The bird-men are the astronomers of the kingdom and the Empress uses them to help with small but important tasks. The bird-men in the story look like geese, but walk and talk like humans. Here, the Empress uses the Bird-men and their ability to fly to her advantage when she uses the fire-stones to drop on her enemy.
“The Empress before she came in sight of the Enemy, sent some of her Fish and Bird-men to bring her intelligence of their Fleet; and hearing of their number, their station and posture, she gave order that when it was Night, her bird men should carry in their beeks some of the mentioned fire-stones, with the tops thereof wetted…” (133-134)
Over the ages humans in every part of the world have noticed and embraced the beauty and mystery of birds. In medieval times, birds were frequently mentioned in literature and understanding the significance of birds in literature help the readers of today grasp the significance of their meaning. Learning about the folklore of birds is a way to gain insight into both literature and life.
Whalen, Logan E., and Matilda Tomaryn Bruckner. “Chapter 6.” A Companion to Marie De France Edited by Logan E. Whalen, Brill, 2011, pp. 157–186.
Photos by Garrett Happ