Thursday, October 20, 2016

Migratory Birds And The Sinking Sun

Every year, across the British Isles and Europe,  birds flock in the wetlands or the trees. It is a process that seems timeless, an annual avian gathering that was taking place long before humans took notice. Drawn by  warmer climates flocks head off to North America or Africa, following mysterious inner maps locked into their genetics. Swallows, starlings, geese by the thousand. Across the entire breadth of Europe this Autumnal drama takes place. 

Mass flocks of  migratory birds gathering and taking to the skies must have been poignant events to the people of our historical  and pre-historical past. How did the people view these events (which may have involved considerably larger flocks, given that humans have altered many natural habitats in the last couple of centuries, and  before scrying guns, on tiny Mediterranean islands, reaped massive quotas of these colourful migratory birds)? 

Long before people were cognisant of the incredible breadth (and fragility) of our planet they must have wondered where the flocks went. Considering the ancient myth of the sun: its journey beyond the horizon into the underworld, which was also the kingdom of the dead - and  that this great departure coincided with the lengthening of nights, as the midwinter solstice drew closer (a celebrated landmark in the annual cycle), it would not be unfeasible to associate this migratory process with the sun (Sun Symbol). Certainly there is a lot of evidence to suggest that water fowl are associated with sun symbols; therefore validating the status of the bird as psychopomp (in fact the Valkyrie's birdlike appearance and their association with death could be a lingering remnant of such ancient imagery - see the post). 

stone mad crafts
From one of my many sketch books

Stone Mad Crafts
Sun cross and bird proud vessel - Bronze-age, France

Indeed shamans often fly to the spirit world. The Evenk shaman of Siberia use wooden effigies of birds to help guide them through their trance journeys. In Celtic myth the druid Mug Ruith wore a bird mask, while the filid, or poet/bards of Celtic tradition wore the tugen, a feathered cloak whose upper half was white with swan fathers, while the lower portion was of darker drake plumage. The striking costume was meant to heighten the filid's otherworldly appearance. 

It is a powerful, mythological  image: flocks descending to the otherworld, where they might sing to the dead or return with their messages  - hinted at in the profusion of tales in which birds possess  oracular powers (Ravens) - is a beautifully primal image. It reflects the idea that death is not an end, but a sort of freedom. Metaphorically the idea of flocks of brightly coloured birds flying into the dark unknown might also reflect the human condition; our journey through life. Surely there is no better envoy or emblem of freedom than the bird, which can rise into the ether, freed from earthly tethers. 

paul jenkins
Hallstatt Iron-Age period sheet bronze vessel stand - picture by Paul Jenkins

To begin with I was thinking I'd crash into a single post covering the symbology of birds... but the more I looked into it, the more evident it became that an single post was going to be messy. There's just no single easy statement that covers the genus of birds. Different species have different attributes and symbology. Therefore this post deals with migratory species, such as geese. At a future point I will cover other species.


The Archaeology Of Images - Miranda Green
Symbol And Image In Celtic Religious Art - Miranda Green:
Celtic Symbols; Sabine Heinz
The Well Of Five Streams - Erynn Laurie
The Shaman - Piers Vitebsky

No comments:

Post a Comment