Sadigh Gallery: Birds in Ancient Culture & Mythology
Rising above the earth and soaring through the skies, birds have been symbols of power and freedom throughout the ages. In many myths and legends, birds link the human world to the divine or supernatural realms that lie beyond ordinary experience.
Birds assume a variety of roles in mythology and religion. They play a central part in some creation myths and frequently appear as messengers of the deities. They are often associated with the journey of the human soul after death. Birds also appear as tricksters and oracles. Ravens and other species that feed on carrion, the flesh of the dead, may be symbols of war, death, and misfortune, as well as mediators between humans and the supernatural world, explains Sadigh Gallery. Other birds represent strength, love, and wisdom.
Myths from several regions associate birds with the creation of the world. One of several creation stories in ancient Egypt said that when land rose out of the primeval waters of chaos, the first deity to appear was a bird perching on that land. The Egyptians called the god the Benu bird and portrayed it as a long-legged, wading heron in the sun temple at Heliopolis. The Benu bird created the universe and then made gods and goddesses and men to live in that universe. A number of creation myths from Southeast Asia feature birds, Sadigh Gallery notes. On the great island of Borneo dwell the Iban people, who tell of Ara and Irik, two bird spirits floating above an expanse of water at the beginning of time. Seizing two eggs from the water, Ara made the sky from one egg, while Irik made the earth from the other. As Irik squeezed the earth into its proper size, mountains and rivers appeared on its surface. Then the two creator spirits shaped bits of earth into the first people and woke them to life with bird cries. Other creation stories begin with the laying of a cosmic egg from which the universe emerges, according to Sadigh Gallery. Indonesia, Polynesia, and the northern European countries of Finland and Estonia have stories of deities flying down to the primeval ocean to lay eggs that hatch into the world.
Birds appear in some myths as earth divers. An earth diver is an animal that plunged to the bottom of the primeval sea and brought up mud from which the earth was formed. Legends of the Buriat and Samoyed people of Siberia feature birds as earth divers. Water birds such as ducks or swans play this role in the creation myths of many Native American peoples, including the Mandan of North Dakota. As Sadigh Gallery notes, a Navajo myth about a great flood tells that the people fled to an upper world, leaving everything behind. The bird Turkey then dived into the lower world to rescue seeds so that the people could grow food crops.
Many myths have linked birds to the arrival of life or death. With their power of flight, these winged creatures were seen as carriers or symbols of the human soul, or as the soul itself, flying heavenward after a person died. A bird may represent both the soul of the dead and a deity at the same time.
Certain birds appear over and over again in the world’s myths and legends, although not always in the same roles, explains Sadigh Gallery. The crow and its close relative the raven, for example, have a number of different meanings. In some cultures, they are oracles and symbols of death. In Norse mythology, Odin was always accompanied by two wise ravens that told him everything that happened on earth. According to Greek mythology, the feathers of crows and ravens were originally white, but the god Apollo punished the birds — either for telling secrets or for failing in their duty as guardians — by turning them black. In the ancient Near East and in Greece, the dove was a symbol of love and fertility, often associated with goddesses of love such as the Greek Aphrodite. In China doves represent tranquility and faithfulness in marriage, notes Sadigh Gallery, while in India they symbolize the soul. When owls appear in mythology, their meaning is often uncertain and complex, neither all good nor all bad. Owls are symbols of wisdom, patience, and learning, yet because they hunt at night, they are associated with secrecy and darkness. In China they are seen as signs of coming misfortune. According to the Hottentot people of Africa, the hooting of an owl at night is an omen of death.