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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
supernatural related to forces beyond the normal world; magical or miraculous
deity god or goddess
trickster mischievous figure appearing in various forms in the folktales and mythology of many different peoples
oracle priest or priestess or other creature through whom a god is believed to speak; also the location (such as a shrine) where such words are spoken
primeval from the earliest times
chaos great disorder or confusion
cosmic large or universal in scale; having to do with the universe
Sometimes mythological birds create more than the physical world. Cultures in northern Europe and Asia credited birds with establishing their social orders, especially kingships. A golden-winged eagle was said to have put the first Mongol* emperor on his throne. The Japanese believed that sacred birds guided their second emperor in conquering his enemies before the
*See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
founding of his dynasty. The Magyar people claimed that a giant eagle, falcon, or hawk had led their first king into Hungary, where he founded their nation. The Magyars looked upon this bird as their mythical ancestor.
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.
Bringers of Life and Death. Some cultures have associated birds with birth, claiming that a person's soul arrived on earth in bird form. A remnant of this ancient belief has survived into modern times: one traditional answer to a child's question "Where do babies come from?" is "The stork brings them."
Birds have also been linked with death. Carrion-eating birds such as vultures, crows, and ravens, for example, were connected with disaster and war. Celtic* and Irish war goddesses often appeared in the form of crows and ravens—perhaps because crows and ravens were known to gather over battlefields and to feast on the flesh of fallen warriors. It was said that if one of these goddesses appeared before an army going into battle, the army would be defeated.
The mythological bird called the phoenix combined images of birth and death to become a powerful symbol of eternal rebirth. According to Egyptian legend, the phoenix burned up every 500 years but was then miraculously reborn out of its own ashes, so it was truly immortal. In myths from China and Japan, the phoenix does not emerge from a fire but instead causes itself to be reborn during times of good fortune.
The Flight of the Soul Numerous myths have linked birds to the journeys undertaken by human souls after death. Sometimes a bird acts as a guide in the afterlife. In Syria, figures of eagles on tombs represent the guides that lead souls to heaven. The soul guide in Jewish tradition is a dove.
In some cultures, it was thought that the soul, once freed from the body, took the form of a bird. The ancient Egyptians believed that the soul, the ba, could leave the dead body in the form of a bird, often a hawk. They built their graves and tombs with narrow shafts leading to the open air so that these birds could fly in and out, keeping watch on the body. The feather cloaks that Central American and Mexican priests and kings wore may have been connected to the idea of a soul journey.
dynasty succession of rulers from the same family or group
immortal able to live forever
imperial relating to an emperor or empire
Because of their great size and strength, eagles have been associated with royal or imperial souls. Some ancient peoples, including the Romans, would release an eagle at a ruler's funeral. As it rose into the sky the mighty bird was seen as the ruler's spirit taking its place in the heavens.
The Greeks and Celts thought that the dead could reappear as birds. The Sumerians of the ancient Near East believed that the dead existed as birds in the underworld. According to Islamic tradition, all dead souls remain in the form of birds until Judgment Day, while in Christian tradition, the gentle dove became a symbol of the immortal soul ascending to heaven. Birds also appear in Hindu mythology as symbols of the soul or as forms taken by the soul between earthly lives. The connection between birds and souls is sometimes reflected in language. A Turkish saying describes somebody's death as "His soul bird has flown away."
Becoming a Bird. Under certain conditions, the living could be transformed into birds. In some cultures, it was believed that shamans, priests, and prophets could change themselves into birds during trances or other mystical states. Such ideas were found in Siberia and Indonesia. In Celtic mythology, both deities and the sly supernatural beings called fairies or fays were said to have the power to transform themselves into birds.
Some legends involve birds that change into or inhabit the bodies of humans. The Central American god Quetzalcoatl, a combination of a bird and a serpent, appears as a culture hero or a god in human form in Toltec, Maya, and Aztec myths. Among certain peoples in northern Europe and Asia, the spirits of birds such as eagles, owls, and crows are said to enter the bodies of shamans to inspire them.
In some myths, humans and other beings acquire the ability to fly like birds. Such supernatural flight, like many mythological powers, can be either good or evil. Norse* tales told that the goddess Freya's feather cloak enabled the wearer to fly. European tradition portrayed angels with wings like those of birds, but devils often had bat wings. Japanese mythology includes a group of winged deities known as tengu. Part bird and part human, they live in forests and occasionally use their powers to play tricks on people.
Birds in mythology sometimes have the ability to speak. These talking birds, often sources of wisdom, may be deities in bird form or simply messengers of the deities. Either way, their advice is generally sound, and humans ignore it at their peril. Birds warn of dangers ahead, reveal secrets, and guide heroes and travelers on their way.
Birds do not always speak in human languages; many stories tell of people who gain the power to understand the language of birds. In Greek mythology, a snake licked the ears of the prophet Cassandra, who could then understand what the birds were saying. After tasting the magical blood of a slain dragon, the German hero Siegfried knew what the forest birds were saying.
shaman person thought to possess spiritual and healing powers prophet one who claims to have received divine messages or insights
culture hero mythical figure who gives people the tools of civilization, such as language and fire
Some birds are believed to have special powers of telling the future or revealing the will of the gods. Magpies, ravens, and doves appear in myth as oracles. In Iranian mythology, birds communicate
*See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
divine wisdom to people. The Hottentot people of southern Africa believe that the hammerhead, a wading bird, can see reflections of the future in pools of water. When the bird learns that someone is about to die, it flies to the person's home and gives three cries of warning.
Certain birds appear over and over again in the world's myths and legends, although not always in the same roles. 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.
Other entries related to birds in mythology are listed at the end of this article.
For some Native Americans, such as the Tsimshian people of the Pacific Northwest, Raven is both a trickster and a culture hero. Sometimes his antics shake up the gods and the established order of the universe, and sometimes they backfire and get him into trouble. Often, though, Raven's deeds benefit humankind, as in the legend of how Raven brought light into the world. After finding the hiding place where the Creator kept the moon, the stars, and daylight, Raven released them so that they could shine on the world.
The majestic eagle, sometimes called the king of birds, usually has divine or royal associations in myth. Images from the ancient Near East and Iran show the sun with an eagle's wings, a sign that the bird was linked to the sun god. The eagle was also a symbol of Jupiter, the supreme Roman deity, and a sign of strength and courage. By adopting the eagle as their symbol, kings from ancient to recent times have tried to suggest that they, too, had some divine or heroic qualities.
Stories of eagles fighting snakes or dragons represent the tension between light and darkness, heavenly and underworld forces. In the myths of various Native American peoples, the eagle is a culture hero, a hunter or a tornado transformed into a bird, and the spirit of war and hunting. The eagle was also the great culture hero of Siberian mythology
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, 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.
Early cultures in Mexico regarded owls as sacred to the rain god, but later the Aztecs of the same region viewed them as evil night demons. Some Native American legends portray owls as destructive and malicious; others show them as helpful beings who warn people of dangers. The stories may include a person who is transformed into an owl. In the Navajo creation myth, an owl resolves a bitter quarrel between men and women, allowing the creation of the human race.
Bats also symbolize both good and evil in mythology. Chinese legends link the bat with good fortune. A group of five bats represents five causes of happiness: wealth, health, long life, virtue, and a natural death. In various other cultures, however, bats are often connected with witches or evil spirits, and demons are pictured with bat wings.
Jewish mythology includes the story of the hoyl—a bird that, like the phoenix, is devoured by divine fire only to rise from its own ashes. Legend says that after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, Adam offered the fruit to all of the animals. The hoyl bird was the only one that refused to eat the fruit that God had said must never be eaten. As a reward, the hoyl received a kind of immortality. It never dies but only goes to sleep, after which fire destroys it. An egg remains, however, and from that egg a full-grown hoyl hatches anew.
Other birds have special meanings in myths. Swans, with their white feathers and graceful appearance, often serve as symbols of purity and feminine beauty. Both Celtic and Norse mythology included tales of women who turned into swans. Male peacocks, endowed with splendid tail feathers, can suggest either foolish vanity or divine glory. In legends from India, they often appear being ridden by one of the gods.