Birds in legend fable and folklore

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St. Francis Preaching to the Birds.

Attributed to Giotto


Angus Mac-ind-oc was the Cupid of the Gaels. He was a harper

of the sweetest music, and was attended by birds, his own trans-

formed kisses, which hovered, invisible, over young men and

maidens of Erin, whispering love into their ears.

WHEN we say, «A little bird told me,» we are

talking legend and folklore and superstition all

at once. There is an old Basque story of a bird

— always a small one in these tales — that tells the truth;

and our Biloxi Indians used to say the same of the

hummingbird. Breton peasants still credit all birds with

the power of using human language on proper occasions,

and traditions in all parts of the world agree that every

bird had this power once on a time if not now. The

fireside-tales of the nomads of Oriental deserts or of

North American plains and forest alike attest faith in

this power; and conversation by and with birds is almost

the main stock of the stories heard on our Southern cot-

ton-plantations. You will perhaps recall the bulbul

bazar of the Arabian Nights, and, if you please, you may

read in another chapter of the conversational pewit and

hoopoe of Solomonic fame.

Biblical authority exists in the confidence of the


Prophet Elijah that a «bird of the air… shall tell the

matter»; and monkish traditions abound in revelations

whispered in the ear of the faithful by winged mes-

sengers from divine sources, as you may read further

along if you have patience to turn the leaves. The poets

keep alive the pretty fiction; and the rest of us resort

to the phrase with an arch smile whenever we do not care

to quote our authority for repeating some half-secret bit

of gossip. «This magical power of understanding bird-

talk,“ says Halliday, 1 * „is regularly the way in which the

seers of myths obtain their information.»

Primitive men — and those we style the Ancients were

primitive so far as nature is concerned — regarded birds

as supernaturally wise. This canniness is implied in

many of the narratives and incidents set down in the

succeeding pages; and in view of it birds came to be

regarded by early man with great respect, yet also with

apprehension, for they might utilize their knowledge to

his harm. For example: The Canada jay is believed

by the Indians along the northern shore of Hudson Bay

to give warning whenever they approach an Eskimo camp

— usually, of course, with hostile intent; and naturally

those Indians kill that kind of jay whenever they can.

The ability in birds to speak implies knowledge, and

Martha Young 2 gives us a view of this logic prevailing

among the old-time southern darkies:

♦This and similar «superior» figures throughout the text refer

to the List of Books in the Appendix, where the author and

title of the publication alluded to will be found under its number.

The author takes this opportunity, in place of a perfunctory

Preface, to make grateful acknowledgment of assistance to Pro-

fessor A. V. H. Jackson, who revised the chapter on fabulous birds;

to Mr. Stewart Culin, helpful in Chinese matters, etc.; to Pro-

fessor Justin H. Smith, who scanned the whole manuscript; and

to others who furnished valuable facts and suggestions.


Sis’ Dove she know mo’n anybody or anything in de worl’.

She know pintedly de time anybody gwine die. You’ll hear

her moanin’ fer a passin’ soul ’fo’ you hear de bell tone.

She know ’fo’ cotton-plantin’ time whe’r de craps dat gatherin’

’11 be good er bad. To’ folks breaks up de new groun’ er

bust out middles, Sis’ Dove know what de yield ’11 be. She

know it an’ she’ll tell it, too. «Caze ev’ybody know if

Sis’ Dove coo on de right han’ of a man plowin’, dare ’11 be

a good crap dat year; but ef she coo on de lef dar ’11 be a

faillery crap dat year.

Sis’ Dove she know about all de craps dat grow out er de

groun’ but she ’special know about corn, fer she plant de fi’st

grain er corn dat ever was plant’ in de whole worl\ Whar

she git it? … Umm — hum! You tell me dat!

From the belief in the intuitive wisdom of birds comes

the world-wide confidence in their prophetic power.

Hence their actions, often so mysterious, have been

watched with intense interest, and everything unusual

in their behavior was noticed in the hope that it might

express a revelation from on high. Advantage was taken

of this pathetic hope and assurance by the Roman augurs

in their legalized ornithomancy, of which some descrip-

tion will be found in another chapter. Nine-tenths of it

was priestly humbug to keep ordinary folks in mental

subjection, as priestcraft has ever sought to do. The

remaining tenth has become the basis of the present

popular faith in birds’ ability to foretell coming weather.

Let me cite a few aboriginal examples of this faith,

more or less sincere, in the ability and willingness of

birds to warn inquiring humanity.

The Omahas and other Siouan Indians used to say

that when whippoorwills sing at night, saying «Hoia,

hohin?» one replies «No.» If the birds stop at once, it is

a sign that the answerer will soon die, but if the birds

keep on calling he or she will live a long time. The

Utes of Colorado, however, declare that this bird is the


god of the night, and that it made the moon by magic,

transforming a frog into it; while the Iroquois indulged

in the pretty fancy that the moccasin-flowers (cypri-

pediums) are whippoorwills’ shoes.

This is a little astray from my present theme, to which

we may return by quoting from Waterton 73 that if one

of the related goatsuckers of the Amazon Valley be heard

close to an Indian’s or a negro’s hut, from that night

evil fortune sits brooding over it. In Costa Rica bones

of whippoorwills are dried and ground to a fine powder

by the Indians when they want to concoct a charm against

some enemy; mixed with tobacco it will form a cigarette

believed to cause certain death to the person smoking it.

To the mountaineers of the southern Alleghanies the

whippoorwill reveals how long it will be before marriage

— as many years as its notes are repeated: as I have

heard the bird reiterate its cry more than 800 times with-

out taking breath, this must often be a discouraging re-

port to an anxious maid or bachelor. One often hears it

said lightly in New England that a whippoorwill calling

very near a house portends death, but I can get no evi-

dence that this «sign» is really attended to anywhere in the

northern United States.

This, and the equally nocturnal screechowl (against

which the darkies have many «conjurings») are not the

only birds feared by rural folk in the Southern States,

especially in the mountains. A child in a family of

Georgia «crackers» fell ill, and his mother gave this

account of it to a sympathetic friend:

Mikey is bound to die. I’ve know’d it all along. All las’

week the moanin’ doves was comin roun’ the house, and this

mornin’ one come in at the window right by Mikey’s head, an’

cooed an’ moaned. I couldn’t scare it away, else a witch would

’a’ put a spell on me.


Mikey lived to become a drunkard, is the unfeeling com-

ment of the reporter of this touching incident in The

Journal of American Folklore.

«One constantly hears by day the note of the limocon,

a wood-pigeon which exercises a most extraordinary

interest over the lives of many of the wild people, for

they believe that the direction and nature of its notes

augur good or ill for the enterprises they have in hand.»

This memorandum, in Dean Worcester’s valuable book

on the Philippines, 3 is apt to the purpose of this intro-

ductory chapter, leading me to say that the continuing

reader will find doves (which are much the same in all

parts of the world) conspicuous in legend, fable and

ceremony; also that the «direction and nature» of their

voices, as heard, is one of the most important elements

in the consideration of birds in general as messengers

and prophets — functions to which I shall often have oc-

casion to refer, and on which are founded the ancient

systems of bird-divination.

In these United States little superstition relating to

animals has survived, partly because the wild creatures

here were strange to the pioneers, who were poorly ac-

quainted with their characteristics, but mainly because

such fears and fancies were left in the Old World with

other rubbish not worth the freight-charges; yet a few

quaint notions came along, like small heirlooms of no

particular value that folks dislike to throw away until

they must. Almost all such mental keepsakes belong to

people in the backward parts of the country, often with

an ill-fitting application to local birds. A conspicuous

disappearance is that venerable body of forebodings and

fancies attached to the European cuckoo, totally unknown

or disregarded here, because our American cuckoos have


no such irregular habits as gave rise to the myths and

superstitions clustering about that bird in Europe.

We saw a moment ago that the negro farmer estimated

what the yield of his field would be by the direction from

which the dove’s message came to his ears. I have an-

other note that if one hears the first mourning-dove of

the year above him he will prosper: if from below him

his own course henceforth will be down hill.

This matter of direction whence (and also of number)

is of vital importance in interpreting bird-prophecy the

world over, as will be fully shown in a subsequent

chapter. Even in parts of New England it is counted

«unlucky» to see two crows together flying toward the

left — a plain borrowing from the magpie-lore of Old

England. In the South it is thought that if two quails

fly up in front of a man on the way to conclude a bargain

he will do well to abandon the intended business. Break

up a killdeer’s nest and you will soon break a leg or arm

— and so on.

There always have been persons who were much dis-

turbed when a bird fluttered against a closed window.

A rooster crowing into an open house-door foretells a

visitor. The plantation darkies of our Southern States

believe that when shy forest-birds come close about a

dwelling as if frightened, or, wandering within it, beat

their wings wildly in search of an exit, so some soul will

flutteringly seek escape from that house — and «right

soon.» Similar fears afflict the timid on the other side

of the globe. On the contrary, and more naturally, it is

esteemed among us an excellent omen when wild birds

nest fearlessly about a negro’s or a mountaineer’s cabin.

When a Georgia girl first hears in the spring the plain-

tive call of returning doves she must immediately attend


to it if she is curious as to her future partner in life.

She must at once take nine steps forward and nine back-

ward, then take off her right shoe: in it she will discover

a hair of the man she is to marry — but how to find its

owner is not explained! This bit of rustic divination is

plainly transferred from the old English formula toward

the first-heard cuckoo, as may be learned from Gay’s

The Sheperd’s Week, 8 which is a treasury of rustic cus-

toms in Britain long ago. Says one of the maids :

Then doff’d my shoe, and by my troth I swear,

Therein I spy’d this yellow, frizzled hair.

This matter of the hair is pure superstition allied to

magic, in practicing which, indeed, birds have often been

degraded to an evil service very remote from their nature.

Thiselton Dyer quotes an Irish notion that «in every-

one’s head there is a particular hair which, if the swallow

can pluck it, dooms the wretched individual to eternal

perdition.» A Baltimore folklorist warns every lady

against letting birds build nests with the combings of

her hair, as it will turn the unfortunate woman crazy.

Any woman afraid of this should beware of that dear

little sprite of our garden shrubbery, the chipping-spar-

row, for it always lines its tiny nest with hair. This

notion is another importation, for it has long been a

saying in Europe that if a bird uses human hair in its

nest the owner of the hair will have headaches and later

baldness. Curiously enough the Seneca Indians, one of

the five Iroquois tribes, are said to have long practised

a means, as they believed it to be, of communicating with

a maiden-relative, after her death, by capturing a fledg-

ling bird with a noose made from her hair. The bird

was kept caged until it began to sing, when it was libe-


rated and was believed to carry to the knowledge of the

departed one a whispered message of love.

Now the idea underlying all this faith in the super-

natural wisdom and prophetic gift in birds is the general

supposition that they are spirits, or, at any rate, possessed

by spirits, a doctrine that appears in various guises but is

universal in the world of primitive culture — a world

nearer to us sophisticated readers than perhaps we

realize: but a good many little children inhabit it, even

within our doors.

«The primitive mind,,, as Dr. Brinton asserts, «did not

recognize any deep distinction between the lower animals

and man»; and continues:

The savage knew that the beast was his superior in many

points, in craft and in strength, in fleetness and intuition, and he

regarded it with respect. To him the brute had a soul not in-

ferior to his own, and a language which the wise among men

might on occasion learn…. Therefore with wide unanimity

he placed certain species of animals nearer to God than is man

himself, or even identified them with the manifestations of the


None was in this respect a greater favorite than the bird.

Its soaring flight, its strange or sweet notes, the marked hues

of its plumage, combined to render it a fit emblem of power

and beauty. The Dyaks of Borneo trace their descent to

Singalang Burong, the god of birds; and birds as the ancestors

of the totemic family are extremely common among the

American Indians. The Eskimos say that they have the faculty

of soul or life beyond all other creatures, and in most primitive

tribes they have been regarded as the messengers of the divine,

and the special purveyors of the vital principles… and every-

where to be able to understand the language of birds was

equivalent to being able to converse with the gods. 4

If this is true it is not surprising that savages in various

parts of the world trace their tribal origin to a super-

natural bird of the same form and name as some familiar


local species, which was inhabited by the soul of their

heroic «first man.» The Osage Indians of Kansas, for

example, say that as far back as they can conceive of

time their ancestors were alive, but had neither bodies

nor souls. They existed beneath the lowest of the four

«upper worlds/' and at last migrated to the highest, where

they obtained souls. Then followed travels in which they

searched for some source whence they might get human

bodies, and at last asked the question of a redbird sitting

on her nest. She replied: «I can cause your children to

have human bodies from my own.» She explained that

her wings would be their arms, her head their head, and

so on through a long list of parts, external and internal,

showing herself a good comparative anatomist. Finally

she declared: «The speech (or breath) of children will

I bestow on your children.» 5

Such is the story of how humanity reached the earth,

according to one branch of the Osages: other gentes

also believe themselves descended from birds that came

down from an upper world. Dozens of similar cases

might be quoted, of which I will select one because of its

curious features. The Seri, an exclusive and backward

tribe inhabiting the desert-like island Tiburon, in the Gulf

of California, ascribe the creation of the world, and of

themselves in particular, to the Ancient of Pelicans, a

mythical fowl of supernal wisdom and melodious song —

an unexpected poetic touch! — who first raised the earth

above the primeval waters. This laf; point is in con-

formity with the general belief that a waste of waters

preceded the appearance, by one or another miraculous

means well within the redman’s range of experience, of

a bit of land; and it is to be observed that this original

patch of earth, whether fixed or floating, was enlarged


to habitable dimensions not by further miracles, nor by

natural accretion, but, as a rule, by the labor and in-

genuity of the «first men» themselves, usually aided by

favorite animals. Thus the Seri Indians naturally held

the pelican in especial regard, but that did not prevent

their utilizing it to the utmost. Dr. W J McGee 6 found

that one of their customs was to tie a broken-winged, liv-

ing pelican to a stake near the seashore, and then appro-

priate the fishes brought to the captive by its free


In fewer cases we find that not only tribal but also

individual origin is ascribed to a bird, the best illustra-

tion of which is the notion of the natives of Perak, in the

Malay Peninsula, that a bird brings the soul to every

person at birth. A woman who is about to become a

mother selects as the place where her baby shall be

born the foot of a certain tree — any one that appeals to

her fancy — and this will be the «name-tree» of her child.

The parents believe that a soul has been waiting for this

child in the form of a bird that for some time before

the birth frequents all the trees of the chosen kind in

that vicinity, searching for the occasion when it may de-

liver its charge, intrusted to it by Kari, the tribal god.

This bird must be killed and eaten by the expectant

mother just before the actual birth or the baby will never

come to life, or if it does will speedily die. A poetic

feature in this tender explanation of the mystery of life

among the jungle-dwellers is that the souls of first-born

children are brought always by the newly hatched off-

spring of the bird that contained the soul of the mother

of the child. 7

Apart from this singular conception of the source of

existence, the general theory of spirituality in birds is


based, as heretofore intimated, on the almost universal

belief that they are often the visible spirits of the dead.

The Powhatans of Virginia, for example, held that the

feathered race received the souls of their chiefs at death;

and a California tribe asserted that the small birds whose

hard luck it was to receive the souls of bad men were

chased and destroyed by hawks, so that those of good

Indians alone reached the happy hunting-grounds beyond

the sky.

James G. Swan relates in his interesting old book about

early days at Puget Sound, 10 that the Indians at Shoal-

water Bay, Oregon, were much disturbed one morning

because they had heard the whistling of a plover in the

night. The white men there told them it was only a

bird’s crying, but they insisted the noise was that of

spirits. Said they: «Birds don’t talk in the night; they

talk in the daytime.“ „But,“ asked Russell, „how can you

tell that it is the memelose tillicunis, or dead people?

They can’t talk.“ „No,“ replied the savage, „it is true they

can’t talk as we do, but they whistle through their teeth.

You are a white man and do not understand what they

say, but Indians know.»

This bit of untainted savage philosophy recalls the

queer British superstition of the Seven Whistlers.

Wordsworth, who was a North-countryman, records of

his ancient Dalesman —

He the seven birds hath seen that never part,

Seen the Seven Whistlers on their nightly rounds

And counted them.

The idea that the wailing of invisible birds is a warning

of danger direct from Providence prevails especially in

the English colliery districts, where wildfowl, migrating


at night and calling to one another as they go, supply

exactly the right suggestion to the timid. Sailors fear

them as «storm-bringers.» Even more horrifying is the

primitive Welsh conception (probably capable of a similar

explanation) of the Three Birds of Rhiannon, wife of

Pwyll, ruler of Hades, that could sing the dead to life

and the living into the sleep of death. Luckily they were

heard only at the death of great heroes in battle.

How easily such things may beguile the imagination

is told in Thomas W. Higginson’s book on army life in

the black regiment of which he was the colonel during

the Civil War. This sane and vigorous young officer

writes of an incident on the South Carolina Coast:»I

remember that, as I stood on deck in the still and misty

evening, listening with strained senses for some sound

of approach of an expected boat, I heard a low con-

tinuous noise from the distance, more mild and desolate

than anything my memory can parallel. It came from

within the vast circle of mist, and seemed like the cry

of a myriad of lost souls upon the horizon’s verge; it

was Dante become audible: yet it was but the accumu-

lated cries of innumerable seafowl at the entrance of the

outer bay.» 9

But I have rambled away along an enticing by-path,

as will frequently happen in the remainder of this book

— to the reader’s interest, I venture to believe.

Returning to the theme of a moment ago, I recall that

the Rev. H. Friend lx tells us that he has seen Buddhist

priests in Canton «bless a small portion of their rice, and

place it at the door of the refectory to be eaten by the

birds which congregate there.» These offerings are to

the «house spirits,» by which the Chinese mean the spirits

of their ancestors, who are still kindly interested in the


welfare of the family. This is real ancestor-worship ex-

pressed in birds; and Spence 12 records that «the shamans

of certain tribes of Paraguay act as go-betweens between

the members of their tribes and such birds as they imagine

enshrine the souls of their departed relatives.» The

heathen Lombards ornamented their grave-posts with

the effigy of a dove. This notion of birds as reincarnated

human souls is not confined to untutored minds nor to

an ancient period. Evidences of its hold on the human

imagination may be found in Europe down to the present

day, and it animates one of the most picturesque super-

stitions of pious followers of Mahomet, two forms of

which have come to me. The first is given by Doughty, 13

the second by Keane, 14 both excellent authorities.

Doughty says: «It was an ancient opinion of the

idolatrous Arabs that the departing spirit flitted from

man’s brainpan as a wandering fowl, complaining thence-

forward in perpetual thirst her unavenged wrong;

friends, therefore, to avenge the friend’s soul-bird, poured

upon the grave their pious libations of wine. The bird

is called a ’green fowl.»»

Quoting Keane: «It is a superstition among the Mo-

hammedans that the spirits of martyrs are lodged in the

crops of green birds, and partake of the fruit and drink

of the rivers of paradise; also that the souls of the good

dwell in the form of white birds near the throne of God.»

But the spirits represented in birds are not always

ancestral or benevolent: they may be unpleasant, fore-

boding, demoniac. The Indians and negroes along the

Amazons will not destroy goatsuckers. Why? Because

they are receptacles for departed human souls who have

come back to earth unable to rest because of crimes done

in their former bodies, or to haunt cruel and hard-hearted

Z 6 birds in legend

masters. In Venezuela and Trinidad the groan-like cries

of the nocturnal, cave-dwelling guacharos are thought

to be the wailing of ghosts compelled to stay in their

caverns in order to expiate their sins. Even now, the

Turks maintain that the dusky shearwaters that daily

travel in mysterious flocks up and down the Bosphorus

are animated by condemned human souls.

By way of the ancestral traditions sketched above,

arise those «sacred animals» constantly mentioned in

accounts of ancient or backward peoples. Various birds

were assigned to the deities and heroes of Egyptian and

Pagan mythology — the eagle to Jove, goose and later the

peacock to Juno, the little owl to Minerva, and so on; but

to call these companions «sacred» is a bad use of the term,

for there was little or nothing consecrate in these ascrip-

tions, and if in any case worship was addressed to the

deity, its animal companion was hardly included in the

reverential thought of the celebrant.

It is conceivable that such ascriptions as these are the

refined relics of earlier superstitions held by primitive

folk everywhere in regard to such birds of their territory

as appealed to their imaginations because of one or an-

other notable trait. Ethnological and zoological books

abound in instances, which it would be tedious to catalog,

and several examples appear elsewhere in this book. A

single, rather remarkable one, that of the South African

ground-hornbill or bromvogel, will suffice to illustrate

the point here. I choose, among several available, the

account given by Layard, 15 one of the early naturalist-

explorers in southern Africa :

The Fingoes seem to attach some superstitious veneration to

the ground-hornbills and object to their being shot in the

neighborhood of their dwellings, lest they should lose their


cattle by disease…. The Kaffirs have a superstition that if

one of these birds is killed it will rain for a long time. I am

told that in time of drought it is the custom to take one alive,

tie a stone to it, then throw it into a «vley»; after that a rain is

supposed to follow. They avoid using the water in which this

ceremony has been performed…. Only killed in time of

severe drought, when one is killed by order of the rain-doctor

and its body is thrown into a pool in a river. The idea is that

the bird has so offensive a smell that it will make the water

sick, and that the only way of getting rid of this is to wash it

away to the sea, which can only be done by a heavy rain.

The ground where they feed is considered good for cattle,

and in settling a new country spots frequented by these birds

are chosen by the wealthy people. Should the birds, however,

by some chance, fly over a cattle kraal, the kraal is moved to

some other place. … It is very weak on the wing, and when

required by the «doctor» the bird is caught by the men of a

number of kraals turning out at the same time, and a particular

bird is followed from one hill to another by those on the look-

out. After three or four flights it can be run down and caught

by a good runner…. The Ovampos [of Damara land] seem

to have a superstition [that the eggs cannot be procured because

so soft that] they would fall to pieces on the least handling.

It seems to me likely that the sense of service to men

in its constant killing of dreaded snakes — birds and ser-

pents are linked together in all barbaric religious and

social myths — may be at the core of the veneration paid

the hornbill, as, apparently, it was in the case of the

Egyptian ibis. This wader was not only a foe to lizards

and small snakes, but, as it always appeared in the Nile

just as the river showed signs of beginning its periodic

overflow, a matter of anxious concern to the people, it

was regarded as a prescient and benevolent creature fore-

telling the longed-for rise of the water. At Hermopolis,

situated at the upper end of the great fertile plain of

the lower Nile, the ibis was incarnated as Thoth (identi-

fied by the Greeks with Hermes), one of the highest gods


of the ancient Egyptians. This ibis, and other incarnated

animals, originally mere symbols of lofty ideas, came to

be reverenced as real divinities in the places where their

cult flourished (although they might enjoy no such dis-

tinction elsewhere), were given divine honors when they

died, and were, in short, real gods to their devotees; that is

to say, the sophisticated Egyptians of the later dynasties

had elevated into the logical semblance of divinity this

and that animal-fetish of their uncultured ancestors.

Another singular case of a bird rising to the eminence

of tutelary deity is that of the ruddy sheldrake (Casarca

rutila) or Brahminy duck in Thibet. From it is derived

the title of the established church of the lamas (practi-

cally the government of that Buddhistic country); and

their abbotts wear robes of the sheldrake colors. In

Burmah the Brahminy duck is sacred to Buddhists as a

symbol of devotion and fidelity, and it was figured on

Asoka’s pillars in this emblematic character. This shel-

drake is usually found in pairs, and when one is shot

the other will often hover near until it, too, falls a vic-

tim to its conjugal love. 16

A stage in this process of deification is given by Tylor

in describing the veneration of a certain bird in Poly-

nesia, as a Tahitian priest explained it to Dr. Ellis, the

celebrated missionary-student of the South Seas. The

priest said that his god was not always in the idol repre-

senting it. «A god,» he declared, «often came to and

passed from an image in the body of a bird, and spiritual

influence could be transmitted from an idol by imparting

it by contact to certain valued kinds of feathers. "This

bit of doctrine helps us to understand what Colonel St.

Johnston has to tell in his recent thoughtful book 48 on the

ethnology of Polynesia, of the special use of the feathers


(mainly red) of particular birds in the insignia of chiefs,

and in religious ceremonials; and he comments as

follows :

In the Samoa, Fiji, and Tonga groups the very special mats

of the chiefs were edged with the much-prized red feathers

usually obtained with great difficulty from Taverni Island.

…In Tahiti the fan was associated with feathers in a pe-

culiar idea of sacredness, and feathers given out by the priests

at the temple at the time of the «Pa’e-atua» ceremony were taken

home by the worshippers and tied on to special fans. These

beautiful feathers of the Pacific were, of course, prized by an

artistic people for their colors alone, but there seems to have

been something more than that, something particularly con-

nected with a divine royalty. In Hawaii the kahili, the sceptre

of the king, was surmounted with special feathers. The royal

cloaks (as in Peru) and the helmets had feathers thickly sewn

on them; the para-kura, or sacred coronet of Tangier was made

of red feathers; and the Pa’e-atua ceremony that I have just

written of consisted of the unwrapping of the images of the

gods, exposing them to the sun, oiling them, and then wrapping

them once more in feathers — fresh feathers, brought by the

worshippers, and given in exchange for the old ones, which

were taken away as prized relics to be fastened to the sacred


Can it be that the feathers represent divine birds, symbolic

of the «Sky People»? We know that many birds were peculiarly

sacred (the tropic bird of Fiji might be mentioned among

others), and the messages of the gods were said to have been

at first transmitted by the birds, until the priests were taught

to do so in the squeaky voices — possibly imitative of bird-cries —

they adopted.

Such deifications of birds took place elsewhere than

in Fiji and Egypt. Charles de Kay has written a learned

yet readable book 18 devoted to expounding the worship

of birds in ancient Europe, and their gradual mergence

into deities of human likeness. He calls attention to re-

mains in early European lore indicating a very extensive

connection of birds with gods, pointing to a worship of


the bird itself as the living representative of a god, «or

else to such a position of the bird toward a deity as to

fairly permit the inference that at a period still more

remote the bird itself was worshipped.» The Poly-

nesian practices detailed above certainly are of very

ancient origin, probably coming to the islands with the

earliest migrants from the East Indian mainlands; and

the theology involved may be a lingering relic of the

times and ideas described in De Kay’s treatise.

To carry these matters further is not within my plan,

for they would lead us into the mazes of comparative

mythology, which it is my purpose to avoid as far as

possible, restricting myself to history, sayings, and allu-

sions that pertain to real, not imaginary, birds.*

The distinction I try to make between the mythical and

the legendary or real, may be illustrated by the king-

fisher — in this case, of course, the common species of

southern Europe. Let us consider first the mythical side.

Alcyone, daughter of /Eolus, the wind-god, impelled by

love for her husband Ceyx, whom she found dead on

the shore after a shipwreck, threw herself into the sea.

The gods, rewarding their conjugal love, changed the

pair into kingfishers. What connection exists between

this, which is simply a classic yarn, and the ancient theory

of the nidification of this species, I do not know; but

the story was — now we are talking of the real bird, which

the Greeks and Latins saw daily — that the kingfisher

hatched its eggs at the time of the winter solstice in a

nest shaped like a hollow sponge, and thought to be

♦Nevertheless, I have made one exception by devoting a chap-

ter to «a fabulous flock» of wholly fictitious birds, namely, the

phenix, rukh (roc), simurgh and their fellows — all hatched from

the same solar nest — because they have become familiar to us, by

name, at least, in literature, symbolism, and proverbial sayings.


solidly composed of fish-bones, which was set afloat, or

at any rate floated, on the surface of the Mediterranean.

The natural query how such a structure could survive the

shock of waves led to the theory that Father yEolus made

the winds «behave» during the brooding-time. As Pliny

explains: «For seven days before the winter solstice, and

for the same length of time after it, the sea becomes calm

in order that the kingfishers may rear their young.»

Simonides, Plutarch, and many other classic authorities,

testify to the same tradition, which seems to have be-

longed particularly to the waters about Sicily. More

recent writers kept alive the tender conceit.

Along the coast the mourning halcyon’s heard

Lamenting sore her spouse’s fate,

are lines from Ariosto’s verse almost duplicated by

Camoens; and Southey —

The halcyons brood around the foamless isles,

The treacherous ocean has forsworn its wiles.

while Dryden speaks of «halcyons brooding on a winter

sea,» and Drayton makes use of the legend in five differ-

ent poems. It is a fact that in the region of southern

Italy a period of calm weather ordinarily follows the

blustering gales of late autumn, which may have sug-

gested this poetic explanation; but one student believes

that the story may have been developed from a far earlier

tradition. «The Rhibus of Aryan mythology, storm-

demons, slept for twelve nights [and days] about the

winter solstice… in the house of the sun-god Savitar.»

Such is the history behind our proverbial expression

for tranquillity, and often it has been used very remotely


from its original sense, as when in Henry VI Shakespeare

makes La Pucelle exclaim: «Expect St. Martin’s sum-

mer, halcyon days,» St. Martin’s summer being the

English name for that warm spell in November known to

us as Indian summer. All this is an extended example

of the kind of poetic myth which has been told of many

different birds, and which in this book is left to be sought

out in treatises on mythology.

In contrast with this sort of tale I find many non-

mythical notions, historical or existing, concerning the

actual kingfisher, which properly belong to my scheme.

One of the oldest is the custom formerly in vogue in

England, and more recently in France, of turning this

bird into a weathercock. The body of a mummified king-

fisher with extended wings would be suspended by a

thread, nicely balanced, in order to show the direction

of the wind, as in that posture it would always turn its

beak, even when hung inside the house, toward the point

of the compass whence the breeze blew. Kent, in King

Lear, speaks of rogues who

Turn their halcyon beaks

With every gale and vary of their masters.

And after Shakespeare Marlowe, in his Jew of Malta,


But how stands the wind?

Into what corner peers my halcyon’s bill?

We are told mat the fishermen of the British and French

coasts hang these kingfisher weathervanes in the rigging

of their boats; and it seems likely to me that it was among

sailors that the custom began.


Although Sir Thomas Browne 33 attributed «an occult

and secret property» to this bird as an indicator of wind-

drift, it does not otherwise appear that it had any magical

reputation: yet the skin of a kingfisher was sure to be

found among the stuffed crocodiles, grinning skulls and

similar decorations of the consulting-room of a medieval

«doctor,» who himself rarely realized, perhaps, what a

fakir he was. Moreover, we read «That its dried body

kept in a house protected against lightning and kept

moths out of garments.»

On the American continent, probably the nearest ap-

proach to the «sacredness» discussed in a former para-

graph, is the sincere veneration of their animal-gods, in-

cluding a few birds, by the Zuriis and some other Village

Indians of New Mexico and Arizona, which has been

studied minutely by our ethnologists. Yet we read of

many other sacred birds among the redmen. The red-

headed woodpecker is regarded as the tutelary deity of

the Omahas, and as the patron-saint of children, because,

they say, its own family is kept in so safe a place.

Pawnees have much the same sentiment toward the wren,

which they call «laughing-bird» because it seems always

happy. The crow was the sacred bird of the «ghost-

dance» — a religious ceremony of high significance among

the tribes of the Plains, as is explained in Chapter IX.

The Navahos regard the mountain bluebird as sacred on

account of its azure plumage, which (as something blue)

is representative of the South; and it is deemed the herald

of the rising sun, which is their supreme image of God.

One of their old men told Stewart Culin that «two blue

birds stand at the door of the house in which [certain]

gods dwell.»

In most cases among our Indians, as elsewhere, it is un-


lawful to kill or eat such a bird, which indicates a rela-

tion to totemism. Thus, as Powers 19 asserts, the Mono

Indians of the Sierra Nevada, never kill their sacred black

eagles, but pluck out the feathers of those that die and

wear them on their heads. «When they succeed in cap-

turing a young one, after a fortnight the village makes a

great jubilation.,, Some Eskimos will not eat gulls’

eggs, which make men old and decrepit.

Whatever tradition or superstition or other motive

affected the choice of any bird as a tribal totem, or en-

dowed it with «sacredness,» practical considerations were

surely influential. It is noticeable that the venerated ibis

and hawk in Egypt were useful to the people as devourers

of vermin — young crocodiles, poisonous snakes, grain-

eating mice and so forth. Storks in Europe and India,

and the «unclean» birds of Palestine forbidden to the

Jews, were mostly carrion-eaters, and as such were de-

sirable street-cleaners in village and camp. A tradition

in the ^Lgean island Tenos is that Poseidon — a Greek St.

Patrick — sent storks to clear the island of snakes, which

originally were numerous there. Australian frontiers-

men preserve the big kingfisher, dubbed «laughing- jack-

ass,» for the same good reason. The wiser men in early

communities appreciated this kind of service by birds,

and added a religious sanction to their admonition that

such servants of mankind should not be killed. It was the

primitive movement toward bird-protection, which, by

the way, was first applied in this country to the scaveng-

ing turkey-buzzards and carrion-crows of the Southern


As for the smaller birds, where special regard was

paid them it was owing, apart from the natural humane

admiration and enjoyment of these pretty creatures, to


the mystery and fiction of their being animated by spirits.

When they were black, like ravens and cormorants, or

were cruel night-prowlers, such as owls, or uttered dis-

consolate cries, they were thought to be inhabited by

dread, malignant, spirits «from night’s Plutonian shore,»

as Poe expresses it, but when they had pretty plumage,

pleasing ways and melodious voices, they were deemed

the embodiment of beneficent and happy spirits — per-

haps even those of departed relatives.

Hence we have the notion that some birds are lucky

and others unlucky in their relation to us. Those that

bring good luck are mainly those kinds that associate

themselves with civilization, such as the various robins,

wrens and storks, the doves and the swallows. Even so,

however, time and place must be considered in every case,

for the dearest of little birds when it pecks at a window-

pane, or seems bent on entering a cottage door will arouse

tremors of fear in a superstitious heart — much more so

a bird that ordinarily keeps aloof from mankind. Frazer

records, in his essay on Scapegoats, that if a wild bird flies

into a rural Malay’s house, it must be carefully caught

and smeared with oil, and must then be released into the

open air with a formula of words adjuring it to take away

all ill-luck. In antiquity Greek women seem to have done

the same with any swallow they found inside the house,

a custom mentioned by both Pythagoras and Plato — the

latter humorously proposing to dismiss poets from his

ideal State in the same manner. Such doings remind

one of the function of the scapegoat; and in fact, accord-

ing to Frazer, the Hazuls, of the Carpathian Mountains,

imagine they can transfer their freckles to the first

swallow they see in the spring by uttering a certain com-

mand to the bird. Are these practices distorted reminis-


cences of the conjuring by the Hebrew shaman as de-

scribed in the Old Testament?

This shall be the law of the leper in the day of his cleansing:

He shall be brought into the priest…. Then shall the priest

command to take for him that is to be cleaned two birds alive

and clean, and cedar wood and scarlet and hyssop. And the

priest shall command that one of the birds be killed in an

earthen vessel over running water. As for the living bird, he

shall take it and the cedar wood, and the scarlet, and the hyssop,

and shall dip them and the living bird in the blood of the bird

that was killed over the running water; and he shall sprinkle

upon him that is to be cleansed from the leprosy seven times,

and shall pronounce him clean, and shall let the living bird

loose into the open field. (Lev. xiv, 27.)

The matter of «luck» in this hocus-pocus seems to lie

in the chance as to which birds is chosen to be «scapegoat,»

and so is allowed to remain alive, cleaning its feathers as

best it may. Evidently, the bird that wishes to do noth-

ing to offend anyone must go warily. A cuckoo, for ex-

ample, may spoil the day for an English milkmaid by

incautiously sounding its call before her breakfast.

Such has been the mental attitude underlying the amaz-

ing ideas and practices that will be found described in

succeeding chapters of this collection of traditional bird-

lore, much of which is so juvenile and absurd. Until

one reviews the groping steps by which mankind ad-

vanced with very uneven speed — a large body of it having

yet hardly begun the progress, even among the «civilized»

— from the crudest animism to a clearer and clearer com-

prehension of «natural law in the physical world,» he

cannot understand how men gave full credence to fictions

that the most superficial examination, or the simplest

reasoning, would show were false, and trembled before

the most imaginary of alarms. Add to this childish


credulity the teachings of religious and political leaders

who had much to gain by conserving the ignorance and

faith of their followers; add again the fruitful influence

of story-tellers and poets who utilized ancient legends

and beliefs for literary advantage, and you have the his-

tory and explanation of how so many primitive super-

stitions and errors have survived to our day.


SEVERAL nations and empires of both ancient and

modern times have adopted birds as emblems of

their sovereignty, or at least have placed promi-

nently on their coats of arms and great seals the figures

of birds.

Among these the eagle — some species of the genus

Aquila — takes precedence both in time and in importance.

The most ancient recorded history of the human race is

that engraved on the tablets and seals of chiefs who

organized a civilization about the head of the Persian

Gulf more than 4000 years before the beginning of the

Christian era. These record by both text and pictures

that the emblem of the Summerian city of Lagash, which

ruled southern Mesopotamia long previous to its subjuga-

tion by Babylonia about 3000 B. C, was an eagle «dis-

played,» that is, facing us with wings and legs spread

and its head turned in profile. This figure was carried

by the army of Lagash as a military standard; but a

form of it with a lion’s head was reserved as the special

emblem of the Lagash gods, with which the royal house

was identified — the king’s standard.

After the conquest of Babylonia by Assyria this eagle

of Lagash was taken over by the conquerors, and appears

on an Assyrian seal of the king of Ur many centuries

later. «From this eagle,» says Ward, 23 «in its heraldic

attitude necessitated by its attack on two animals [as



represented on many seals and decorations] was derived

the two-headed eagle, in the effort to complete the

bilateral symmetry. This double-headed eagle appears

in Hittite art, and is continued down through Turkish and

modern European symbolism.»

Among the host of rock-carvings in the Eyuk section

of the mountains of Cappadocia (Pteria of the Greeks)

that are attributed to the Hittites, Perrot and Chipiez

found carvings of a double-headed eagle which they

illustrate; 112 and they speak of them as often occurring.

«Its position is always a conspicuous one — about a great

sanctuary, the principal doorway to a palace, a castle

wall, and so forth; rendering the suggestion that the

Pterians used the symbol as a coat of arms.»

Dr. Ward thought the Assyrian two-headed figure of

their national bird resulted from an artistic effort at

symmetry, balancing the wings and feet outstretched on

each side, but I cannot help feeling that here among the

Hittites it had its origin in a deeper sentiment than that.

It seems to me that it was a way of expressing the dual

sex of their godhead, presupposed, in the crudeness of

primitive nature-worship, to account for the condition

of earthly things, male and female uniting for productive-

ness — the old story of sky and earth as co-generators of

all life. Many other symbols, particularly those of a

phallic character, were used in Asiatic religions to typify

the same idea; or perhaps the conception was of that

divine duality, in the sense of co-equal power of Good

and Evil, God and Satan, that later became so conspicuous

in the doctrine of the ancient Persians. Could it have

been a purified modification of this significance that made

the eagle during the Mosaic period — if Bayley 24 is right

— an emblem of the Holy Spirit? And Bayley adds


that «its portrayal with two heads is said to have re-

corded the double portion of the spirit bestowed on


Old Mohammedan traditions, according to Dalton,

give the name «hamca» to a fabulous creature identical

with the bicephalous eagle carved on Hittite rock-faces.

Dalton 25 says also that coins with this emblem were

struck and issued by Malek el Sala Mohammed, one of

the Sassanids, in 1217; and that this figure was engraved

in the 13th century by Turkoman princes on the walls

of their castles, and embroidered on their battle-flags.

To the early Greeks the eagle was the messenger of

Zeus. If, as asserted, it was the royal cognizance of the

Etruscans, it came naturally to the Romans, by whom

it was officially adopted for the Republic in 87 B. C,

when a silver eagle, standing upright on a spear, its

wings half raised, its head in profile to the left, and

thunderbolts in its claws, was placed on the military

standards borne at the head of all the legions in the

army. This was in the second consulship of Caius

Marius, who decreed certain other honors to be paid to

the bird’s image in the Curia.

One need not accuse the Romans of merely copying the

ancient monarchies of the East. If they thought of any-

thing beyond the majestic appearance of the noble bird,

it was to remember its association with their great god

Jupiter — the counterpart of Zeus. Nothing is plainer as

to the origin of the ideas that later took shape in the

divinities of celestial residence than that Jupiter was the

personification of the heavens; and what is more natural

than that the lightnings should be conceived of as his

weapons? Once, early in his history, when Jupiter was

equipping himself for a battle with the Titans, an eagle


brought him his dart, since which time Jupiter’s eagle has

always been represented as holding thunderbolts in its

talons. The bird thus became a symbol of supreme power,

and a natural badge for soldiers. The emperors of im-

perial Rome retained it on their standards, Hadrian

changing its metal from silver to gold; and «the eagles

of Rome» came to be a common figure of speech to ex-

press her military prowess and imperial sway.

By such a history, partly mythical, and partly practical

and glorious, this bird came to typify imperialism in gen-

eral. A golden eagle mounted on a spear, was the royal

standard of the elder Cyrus, as it had been of his


When Napoleon I. dreamed of universal conquest he

revived on the regimental banners of his troops the

insignia of his Roman predecessors in banditry — in fact

he was entitled to do so, for he had inherited them by

right of conquest from both Italy and Austria, the

residuary legatees of Rome. Discontinued in favor of

their family bees by the Bourbons, during their brief

reign after the fall of Bonaparte, the eagle was restored

to France by a decree of Louis Napoleon in 1852. There

is a legend that a tame eagle was let loose before him

when he landed in France from England to become

President of the first French Republic. Now it is the

proper finial for flagstaffs all over the world except,

curiously, in France itself, where a wreath of laurel

legally surmounts the tricolor of the Republic, which has

discarded all reminders of royalty. Thus the pride of

conquerors has dropped to the commonplace of fashion —

Imperial Caesar, dead and turned to clay,

Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.


The destruction of the Italian and western half of the

old Roman empire was by the hands of northern bar-

barians who at first were mere conquerors and despoilers,

but finally, affected by their contact with civilization and

law, became residents in and rulers of Italy, and were

proud to assume the titles and what they could of the

dignity of Roman emperors. In the eighth century

Charlemagne became substantially master of the western

world, at least, and assumed the legionary eagle as he

did the purple robes of an Augustus; and his successors

held both with varying success until the tenth century,

when German kings became supreme and in 962 founded

that very unholy combination styled the Holy Roman

Empire. For hundreds of years this fiction was main-

tained. At times its eagle indicated a real lordship over

all Europe; between times the states broke apart, and, as

each kept the royal standard, separate eagles contended

for mastery. Thus Prussia and other German kingdoms

retained on their shields the semblance of a «Roman»

eagle; and the Teutonic Knights carried it on their savage

expeditions of «evangelization» to the eastern Baltic lands.

All these were more or less conventional figures of

the Bird of Jove in its natural form, but a heraldic figure

with two heads turned, Janus like, in opposite directions,

was soon to be revived in the region where, as we have

seen, it had been familiar 2000 years before as the

national emblem of the Eastern, or Byzantine, Empire,

which for hundreds of years contested with Rome, both

the political and the ecclesiastical hegemony of the world.

Just when this symbol came into favor at Constantinople

is unknown, but one authority says it did not appear be-

fore the tenth century. At that time the Eastern em-

perors were recovering lost provinces and extending their


rule until it included all the civilized part of western Asia,

Greece, Bulgaria, southern Italy, and much of the islands

and shores of the Mediterranean; and they asserted re-

ligious supremacy, at least, over the rival European em-

pire erected on Charlemagne’s foundation. It would

seem natural that at this prosperous period, when

Byzantium proudly claimed, if she did not really possess

all «the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that

was Rome,» such a double-headed device might be

adopted, signifying that she had united the western power

with her own. The evidence of this motive is doubtful,

however, for it is not until a much later date that the

figure begins to be seen on coins and textiles, first at

Trebizond, particularly in connection with the emperor

Theodore Lascaris, who reigned at the beginning of the

13th century. Dalton 25 suggests plausibly that this

symbol may have become Byzantine through the circum-

stance that this Lascaris had previously been despot of

Nicomedia, in which province Bogaz-Keui and other

Hittite remains were situated, and where the bicephalous

carvings heretofore alluded to are still to be seen on rock-

faces and ruins, always in association with royalty.

It is very attractive to think that this form of eagle

was chosen, as has been suggested, to express the fact

that Constantinople was now lord over both halves, East

and West, into which Diocletian had divided the original

empire of Rome. Whether this idea was behind the

choice I do not know, but at any rate the two-faced

eagle became latterly the acknowledged ensign of imperial

Byzantium, and as such was introduced into European

royal heraldry, whether or not by means of the returning

Crusaders, as commonly stated, remains obscure.

In the 15th century what was left of the Holy Roman


Empire became the heritage of the Austrian house of

Hapsburg which had succeeded the German Hohen-

stauffens; and to Sigismund, head of the house in that

century, is ascribed the design in the Austrian arms of

the two-headed eagle, looking right and left, as if to

signify boastfully that he ruled both East and West.

These were relative and indefinite domains, but as he

had, by his crowning at Rome, received at least nominal

sovereignty over the fragmentary remains in Greece of

the ancient Eastern Empire, he was perhaps justified in

adopting the Byzantine ensign as «captured colors’*; but

a rival was soon to present a stronger claim to these

fragments and their badge.

In this same period, that is in the middle of the 15th

century, Ivan the Great of Russia was striving with high

purpose and despotic strength to bring back under one

sway the divided house of Muscovy, together with what-

ever else he could obtain. To further this purpose he

married, in 1472, Sophia Paleologos, niece of the last

Byzantine emperor, getting with her Greece and hence a

barren title to the throne of the Eastern empire — a barren

title because its former domain was now over-run by the

Turks, but very important in the fact that it included

the headship of the Greek, or Orthodox, Church. From

this time Russia as well as Austria has borne a two-faced

eagle on its escutcheon; and, although both birds are

from the same political nest, the feeling between them

has been far from brotherly.

It may be remarked here, parenthetically, that in Egypt

the cult of the kingly eagle never flourished, for the

griffon vulture, «far-sighted, ubiquitous, importunate,»

became the grim emblem of royal power; and a smaller

vulture {Neophron pcrcnopterus) is called Pharaoh’s


chicken to this day by the fellaheen. By «eagle» in Semitic

(Biblical) legends is usually meant the lammergeier.

Prussia had kept a single-headed eagle as her cog-

nizance in remembrance of her previous «Roman» great-

ness; and it was retained by the German Empire when

that was created by Bismarck half a century and more

ago. From it the Kaiser designated the two German

military orders — the Black Eagle and the superior Red

Eagle; and Russia and Serbia have each instituted an

order called White Eagle. The traditional eagle of

Poland is represented as white on a black ground. It was

displayed during the period of subjection following the

partition of the country in 1795, with closed wings, but

now, since 19 19, it spreads its pinions wide in the pride

of freedom.

In the years between 191 4 and 19 19 an allied party of

hunters, enraged by their depredations, zvent gunning for

these birds of prey, killed most of them and sorely

wounded the rest!

Although several species of real eagles inhabit the

Mediterranean region and those parts of Europe and Asia

where these nations lived, and warred, and passed away,

and are somewhat confused in the mass of myth and tra-

dition relating to them, the one chosen by Rome was

the golden eagle, so called because of the golden gloss

that suffuses the feathers of the neck in mature birds.

Now we have this species of sea-eagle in the United

States, and it has been from time immemorial the honored

War-eagle of the native redmen. If it was needful at

our political birth to put any sort of animal on our seal,

and the choice was narrowed down to an eagle, it would

have been far more appropriate to have chosen the golden

rather than the white-headed or «bald» species — first be-


cause the golden is in habits and appearance far the nobler

of the two, and, second, because of the supreme regard

in which it was held by all the North American aborigi-

nes, who paid no respect whatever to the bald eagle. On

the other hand, the white head and neck of our accepted

species gives a distinctive mark to our coat of arms.

The history of the adoption of this symbol of the United

States of America is worth a paragraph.

On July 4, 1776, on the afternoon following the morn-

ing hours in which the Congress in Philadelphia had

performed the momentous duty of proclaiming the inde-

pendence of the United States, it dropped down to the

consideration of its cockade, and appointed a committee

to prepare a device for a Great Seal and coat-of-arms

for the new republic. 26 Desiring to avoid European

models, yet clinging to the traditions of art in these

matters, the committee devised and offered in succession

several complicated allegorical designs that were promptly

and wisely rejected by the Congress. Finally, in 1782, the

matter was left in the hands of Charles Thomson, Secre-

tary of the Congress, and he at once consulted with

William Barton of Philadelphia. They abandoned

allegory and designed an eagle «displayed proper,» that

is, with a shield on its breast. Mr. Barton, who was

learned in heraldry, explained that «the escutcheon being

placed on the breast of the eagle displayed is a very

ancient mode of bearing, and is truly imperial.» To

avoid an «imperial» effect, however, a concession was

made to local prejudice by indicating plainly that the bird

itself was the American bald eagle — unless, indeed, that

happened to be the only one Barton knew!

This design was finally adopted in 1782. Since then

the Great Seal has been re-cut several times, so that the


bird in its imprint is now a far more reputable fowl than

at first — looks less as if it were nailed on a barn-door

pour encourager les autrcs. In its right claw it holds a

spray of ripe olives as an emblem of a peaceful disposi-

tion, and in its left an indication of resolution to en-

force peace, in the form of American thunderbolts —

the redman’s arrows.

There were men in the Congress in 1782, as well as

out of it, who disliked using any eagle whatever as a

feature of the arms of the Republic, feeling that it

savored of the very spirit and customs against which the

formation of this commonwealth was a protest. Among

them stood that clear-headed master of common sense,

Benjamin Franklin, who thought a thoroughly native and

useful fowl, like the wild turkey, would make a far truer

emblem for the new and busy nation. He added to the

turkey’s other good qualities that it was a bird of courage,

remarking, with his own delightful humor, that it would

not hesitate to attack any Redcoat that entered its barn-


Franklin was right when he argued against the choice

of the bald eagle, at any rate, as our national emblem.

«He is,» he said truly, «a bird of bad moral character;

he does not get his living honestly; you may have seen

him perched on some dead tree, where, too lazy to fish for

himself, he watches the labor of the fishing-hawk, and

when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish and is

bearing it to its nest the bald eagle pursues him and takes

it from him. Besides, he is a rank coward; the little

kingbird attacks him boldly. He is therefore by no means

a proper emblem.»

None of these depreciatory things could Franklin have

truly said of the skilful, self-supporting, and handsome


golden eagle — a Bird of Freedom indeed. (Audubon

named a western variety of it after General Washington.)

This species was regarded with extreme veneration by

the native redmen of this country. «Its feathers,» says

Dr. Brinton, the ethnologist, «composed the war-flag of

the Creeks, and its image, carved in wood, or its stuffed

skin, surmounted their council-lodges. None but an ap-

proved warrior dare wear it among the Cherokees, and

the Dakotas allowed such an honor only to him who

first touched the corpse of the common foe. The

Natchez and other tribes regarded it almost as a deity.

The Zuni of New Mexico employed four of its feathers

to represent the four winds when invoking the raingod.»

Hence a war-song of the O jib ways reported by School-

craft :

Hear my voice ye warlike birds!

I prepare a feast for you to batten on;

I see you cross the enemy’s lines;

Like you I shall go.

I wish the swiftness of your wings;

I wish the vengeance of your claws;

I muster my friends;

I follow your flight.

Doesn’t this sound like a bit from the Saga of Harold


Mexico did better in choosing her crested eagle, the

harpy (Thrasaetus harpia),& magnificent representative of

its race, renowned from Paraguay to Mexico for its hand-

some black-and-white plumage adorned with a warrior’s

crest, and for its grand flight, dauntless courage and

amazing endurance. Quesada tells us that the Aztecs

called it the winged wolf. The princes of Tlascala wore

its image on their breasts and on their shield as a symbol


of royalty; and in both Mexico and Peru, where it was

trained for sport in falconry, it was preferred to the

puma, which also was taught to capture deer and young

peccaries for its master, as is the cheeta in India. Cap-

tive harpies are still set to fight dogs and wildcats in

village arenas, and rarely are vanquished.

The tradition is that the Aztecs, a northern Nahuatl

tribe, escaping from the tyranny of the dominant Chiche-

mecas, moved about A. D. 1325 into the valley of Mexico

(Tenochtitlan), and settled upon certain islets in a

marshy lake — the site of the subsequent City of Mexico;

and this safe site is said to have been pointed out to

them by a sign from their gods — an eagle perched upon

prickly-pear cactus, the nopal, in the act of strangling

a serpent. This is the picture Cortez engraved on his

Great Seal, and Mexico has kept it to this day.

Guatemala was a part of ancient Mexico; and perched

on the shield in Guatemala’s coat-of-arms is the green or

resplendent trogon {Plmromacrus mocinno), the native

and antique name of which is quetzal. This is one of

the most magnificent of birds, for its crested head and

body (somewhat larger than a sparrow’s) are iridescent

green, the breast and under parts crimson, and the wings

black overhung by long, plumy coverts. The quetzal’s

special ornament, however, is its bluish-green tail, eight

or ten inches long, whose gleaming feathers curve down

in the graceful sweep of a sabre. It has been called the

most beautiful of American birds, and it is peculiar to

Central America.

How this trogon came to be Guatemala’s national sym-

bol, made familiar, by all its older postage-stamps, is a

matter of religious history. One of the gods in the

ancient Aztec pantheon was Quetzalcoatl, of whom it was

4 o


said in their legends «that he was of majestic presence,

chaste in life, averse to war, wise and generous in action,

and delighting in the cultivation of the arts of peace.»

He was the ruler of the realm far below the surface of

the earth, where the sun shines at night, the abode of

abundance where dwell happy souls; and there Quetzal-

coatl abides until the time fixed for his return to men.

The first part of the name of this beneficent god, asso-

ciated with sunshine and green, growing things, meant

in the Nahuatl language a large, handsome, green feather,

such as were highly prized by the Aztecs and reserved for

the decoration of their chiefs; and one tradition of the

god’s origin and equipment relates that he was furnished

with a beard made of these plumes. These royal and

venerated feathers were obtained from the trogon, which

his worshippers called Quetzal-totl. The emerald-hued

hummingbirds of the tropics also belonged to him.

Although Mexico and Central America were «con-

verted» to Christianity by a gospel of war and slavery, the

ancient faith lived on in many simple hearts, especially in

the remoter districts of the South, and nowhere more per-

sistently than among the Mayas of Guatemala and Yuca-

tan, whose pyramidal temples are moldering in their uncut

forests. When, in 1825, Guatemala declared its inde-

pendence and set up a local government, what more

natural than that it should take as a national symbol the

glorious bird that represented to its people the best in-

fluence in their ancient history and the most hopeful sug-

gestion for the future.

In the religion of the Mayas of Yucatan the great god

of light was Itsamna, one of whose titles was The Lord,

the Eye of the Day — a truly picturesque description of

the sun. A temple at Itzmal was consecrated to him


under the double name Eye of Day-Bird of Fire. «In

time of pestilence,“ as Dr. Brinton informs us, 27 „the

people resorted to this temple, and at high noon a sacrifice

was spread upon the altar. The moment the sun reached

the zenith a bird of brilliant plumage, but which in fact

was nothing else than a fiery flame shot from the sun, de-

scended and consumed the offering in the sight of all.»

Another authority says that Midsummerday was cele-

brated by similar rites. Hence was held sacred the flame-

hued ara, or guacamaya, the red macaw.

The Musicas, natives of the Colombian plateau where

Bogota now stands, had a similar half-superstitious re-

gard for this big red macaw, which they called «fire-bird.»

The general veneration for redness, prevalent throughout

western tropical America, and in Polynesia, is doubtless

a reflection of sun-worship.

Let us turn to a lighter aspect of our theme.

France rejoices, humorously, yet sincerely, in the cock

as her emblem — the strutting, crowing, combative chan-

ticleer that arouses respect while it tickles the French

sense of fun. When curiosity led me to inquire how this

odd representative for a glorious nation came into exis-

tence, I was met by a complete lack of readily accessible

information. The generally accepted theory seemed to

be that it was to be explained by the likeness of sound be-

tween the Latin word gallus, a dunghill cock, and Gallus,

a Gaul — the general appellative by which the Romans

of mid-Republic days designated the non-Italian, Keltic-

speaking inhabitants of the country south and west of

the Swiss Alps. But whence came the name «gaul»? and

why was a pun on it so apt that it has survived through long

centuries? I knew, of course, of the yarn that Diodorus

Siculus repeats: that in Keltica once ruled a famous man



who had a daughter «tail and majestic» but unsatisfactory

because she refused all the suitors who presented them-

selves. Then Hercules came along, and the haughty

maiden surrendered at Arras. The result was a son

named Galetes — a lad of extraordinary virtues who be-

came king and extended his grandfather’s dominions.

He called his subjects after his own name Galatians and

his country Galatia. This is nonsense. Moreover

«Galatia» is Greek, and was applied by the Greeks, long

before the day of Diodorus, to the lands of a colony of

Keltic-speaking migrants who had settled on the coast

of Asia Minor, and became the Galatians to whom Paul

wrote one of his Epistles. The Greek word Galatai was,

however, a form of the earlier Keltai.

As has been said, what we call Savoy and France

were known to the Romans as Gallia, Gaul; but this term

had been familiar in Italy long before Caesar had estab-

lished Roman power over the great region between the

German forests and the sea that he tersely described as

Omnia Gallia; and it seems to have originated in the fol-

lowing way:

About i ioo B. C. two wild tribes, the Umbrians and

the Oscans, swept over the mountains from the northeast,

and took possession of northern Italy. These invaders

were Nordics, and used an antique form of Teutonic

speech. They were resisted, attacked, and finally over-

whelmed by the Etruscans, who about 800 B. C, when

Etruria was at the height of its power, extended their

rule to the Alps and the Umbrian State disappeared. In

the sixth century new hordes, calling themselves Kymri,

coming from the west, and speaking Keltic dialects,

swarmed into northern Italy from the present France.


The harried people north of the Po, themselves mostly

descendants of the earlier invasion, spoke of these raiders

by an old Teutonic epithet which the Romans heard and

wrote as Gall us, the meaning of which was «stranger» —

in this case «the enemy.»

The word G alius, Gaul or a Gaul, then, was an ancient

Teutonic epithet inherited by the Romans from the

Etruscans, and had in its origin no relation to gallns,

the lord of the poultry-yard. It is most likely, indeed,

that the term was given in contempt, as the Greeks called

foreigners «barbarians» because they spoke some language

which the Greeks did not understand; for the occupants

of the valley of the Po at that time were of truly Ger-

manic descent, and did not regard the round-headed,

Alpine «Kelts» as kin in any sense, but rather as ancient

foes. What the word on their lips actually was no one

knows; but it seems to have had a root gal or vol, inter-

changeable in the sound (to non-native ears) of its initial

letter, whence it appears that Galatai, Gael, Valais,

Walloon, and similar names connected with Keltic history

are allied in root-derivation. Wales, for example, to the

early Teutonic immigrants into Britain was the country

of the Wealas, i.e., the «foreigners» (who were Gaulish,

Keltic-speaking Kymri); and the English are not yet

quite free from that view of the Welsh.

The opportunity to pun with gallus, a cock, is evident,

just as was a bitter pun current in Martial’s time between

Gallia, a. female Gaul and gallia, a gall-nut; but in all this

there is nothing to answer the question why the pun of

which we are in search — if there was such a pun — has

endured so long. I think the answer lies in certain appear-

ances and customs of the Keltic warriors.



Plutarch, in his biography of Caius Marius, describes

the Kymri fought by Marius, years before Caesar’s

campaigns, as wearing helmets surmounted by animal

effigies of various kinds, and many tall feathers.

Diodorus says the Gauls had red hair, and made it redder

by dyeing it with lime. This fierce and flowing red head-

dress must have appeared much like a cock’s comb, to

which the vainglorious strutting of the barbarians added

a most realistic touch in the eyes of the disciplined legion-

aries. Later, the Roman authorities in Gaul minted a coin

or coins bearing a curious representation of a Gaulish

helmet bearing a cock on its crest, illustrations of which

are printed by G. R. Rothery in his A B C of Heraldry.

Rothery also states that the bird appears on Gallo-Roman

sculptures. Another writer asserts that Julius Caesar

records that those Gauls that he encountered fought

under a cock-standard, which he regarded as associated

with a religious cult, but I have been unable to verify this

interesting reference. Caesar does mention in his Com-

mentaries that the Gauls were fierce fighters, and that

one of their methods in personal combat was skilful kick-

ing, like a game-cock’s use of its spurs — a trick still em-

ployed by French rowdies, and known as la savate. In

the Romance speech of the south of France chanticleer

is still gall.

The question arises here in the mind of the naturalist:

If the aboriginal Gauls really bore a «cock» on their

banners and wore its feathers in their helmets (as the

Alpine regiments in Italy now wear chanticleer’s tail-

plumes), what bird was it? They did not then possess

the Oriental domestic fowls to which the name properly

belongs, and had nothing among their wild birds re-

sembling it except grouse. One of these wild grouse is


the great black capercaille, a bold, handsome bird of

the mountain forests, noted for its habit in spring of

mounting a prominent tree and issuing a loud challenge to

all rivals; and one of its gaudy feathers is still the favor-

ite ornament for his hat of the Tyrolean mountaineer.

By the way, the cockade, that figured so extensively as

a badge in the period of the French Revolution was so

called because of its resemblance to a cock’s comb.

Now comes a break of several centuries in the record,

illuminated by only a brief note in La Rousse’s Encyclo-

pedic, that in 12 14, after the Dauphin du Viennois had

distinguished himself in combat with the English, an

order of knights was formed styled L’Ordre du Coq; and

that a white cock became an emblem of the dauphins of

the Viennois line.

The cock did not appear as a blazon when, after the

Crusades, national coats-of-arms were being devised;

nevertheless the le coq de France was not forgotten, for

it was engraved on a medal struck to celebrate the birth

of Louis XIII (1 60 1). Then came the Revolution, when

the old regime was overthrown; and in 1792 the First

Republic put the cock on its escutcheon and on fts flag

in place of the lilies of the fallen dynasty. When this

uprising of the people had been suppressed, and Napoleon

I had mounted the throne, in 1804, he substituted for it

the Roman eagle, which he had inherited from his con-

quests in Italy and Austria, and which was appropriate

to his ambitious designs for world domination. This re-

mained until Napoleon went to Elba, and then Louis

XVIII brought back for a short time the Bourbon lilies;

yet medals and cartoons of the early Napoleonic era

depict the Gallic cock chasing a runaway lion of Castile

or a fleeing Austrian eagle, showing plainly what was


the accepted symbol of French power in the eyes of the

common folks of France. One medal bore the motto

Je veille pour le nation.

Napoleon soon returned from Elba only to be extin-

guished at Waterloo, after which, during the regime of

Louis Philippe, the figure of the Gallic cock was again

mounted on the top of the regimental flagstaffs in place

of the gilded eagle; an illustration of this finial is given

in Armories et Drapeaux Frangais. Louis Philippe could

do this legitimately, according to Rothery and others,

because this bird was the crest of his family — the Bour-

bons — in their early history in the south of France. The

Gallic cock continued to perch on the banner-poles until

the foundation of the second Empire under Louis

Napoleon in 1852. Since then the «tricolor,» originating

in 1789 as the flag of the National Guard, and dispensing

with all devices, has waved over France. Officially bold

chanticleer was thus dethroned; but in the late World

War, as in all previous periods of public excitement, the

ancient image of French nationality has been revived, as

the illustrated periodicals and books of the time show;

and, much as they revere the tricolor, the soldiers still feel

that it is le coq Gaulois that in 19 18 again struck down

the black eagles of their ancient foes.

Juvenal’s sixth Satire, in which he castigates the

Roman women of his day for their sins and follies, con-

tains a line, thrown in as a mere side-remark —

Rara avis in terris, negroque similima cygno —

which has become the most memorable line in the whole

homily. It has been variously translated, most literally,

perhaps, by Madan: «A rare bird in the earth, and very


like a black swan.» The comparison was meant to indi-

cate something improbable to the point of absurdity; and

in that sense has rara avis been used ever since.

For more than fifteen hundred years Juvenal’s expres-

sion for extreme rarity held good; but on January 6,

1697, tri e Dutch navigator Willem de Vlaming, visiting

the southwestern coast of Australia, sent two boats ashore

to explore the present harbor of Perth. «There their

crews first saw two and then more black swans, of which

they caught four, taking two of them alive to Batavia;

and Valentyne, who several years later recounted this

voyage, gives in his work a plate representing the ship,

boats and birds at the mouth of what is now known from

this circumstance as Swan River, the most important

stream of the thriving colony now State of Western

Australia, which has adopted this very bird as its armorial


Another Australian bird, that, like the black swan, has

obtained a picturesque immortality in a coat-of-arms;

and on postage stamps, is the beautiful lyre-bird, first dis-

covered in New South Wales in 1789, and now a feature

in the armorial bearings of that State in the Australian

Commonwealth. New Zealand’s stamps show the apteryx

(kiwi) and emeu.

One might extend this chapter by remarking on various

birds popularly identified with certain countries, as the

ibis with Egypt, the nightingale with England and Persia,

the condor with Peru, the red grouse with Scotland, the

ptarmigan with Newfoundland, and so on. Then might

be given a list of birds w T hose feathers belonged ex-

clusively to chieftanship, and so had a sort of tribal sig-

nificance. Thus in Hawaii a honeysucker, the mamo,

furnished for the adornment of chiefs alone the rich


yellow feathers of which «royal» cloaks were made; the

Inca «emperors» of Peru, before the Spanish conquest, re-

served to themselves the rose-tinted plumage of an

Andean water-bird; an African chief affected the long

tail-plumes of the widowbird — and so forth.

Only one of these locally revered birds entices me to

linger a moment — the nightingale, beloved of English

poets, whose oriental equivalent is the Persian bulbul.

The mingled tragedies of the nightingale and the swallow

form the theme of one of the most famous as well as

sentimental legends of Greek mythology. These myths,

strangely confused by different narrators, have been un-

ravelled by the scholarly skill of Miss Margaret Verrall

in her Mythology of Ancient Athens; 108 and her analysis

throws light on the way the Greek imagination, from pre-

historic bards down to the vase-decorators of the classic

era, and to the dramatists Sophocles, ^Eschylus, and

Aristophanes, dealt with birds — a very curious study.

Miss Verrall reminds us that a word is necessary as to

the names of the Attic tale. «We are accustomed, bur-

dened as we are with Ovidian association, to think of

Philomela as the nightingale. Such was not the version

of Apollodorus, nor, so far as I know, of any earlier

Greek writer. According to Apollodorus, Procne became

the nightingale (’a^Swv) and Philomela the swallow (x^8cov)

It was Philomela who had her tongue cut out, a tale that

would never have been told of the nightingale, but which

fitted well with the short restless chirp of the swallow.

To speak a barbarian tongue was ’to mutter like a


But there has arisen in Persia a literature of the night-

ingale, or «bulbul,» springing from a pathetic legend —

if it is not simply poetic fancy — that as the bird pours

forth its song «in a continuous strain of melody» it is


pressing its breast against a rose-thorn to ease its heart’s

pain. Giles Fletcher, who had been attached to one of

Queen Elizabeth’s missions to Russia, and perhaps in that

way picked up the suggestion, used it in one of his love-

poems in a stanza that is a very queer mixture of two

distinct fancies and a wrong sex, for the thrush that

sings is not the one that has any occasion to weep about


So Philomel, perched on an aspen sprig,

Weeps all the night her lost virginity,

And sings her sad tale to the merry twig,

That dances at such joyful mystery.

Ne ever lets sweet rest invade her eye,

But leaning on a thorn her dainty chest

For fear soft sleep should steal into her breast

Expresses in her song grief not to be expressed.

The poetic vision over which Hafiz and others have

sighed and sung in the fragrant gardens of Shiraz seems

to owe nothing to the Greek tale, and to them the plain-

tive note in the bird’s melody is not an expression of

bitter woe, but only bespeaks regret whenever a rose is

plucked. They will tell you tearfully that the bulbul will

hover about a rosebush in spring, till, overpowered by

the sweetness of its blossoms, the distracted bird falls

senseless to the ground. The rose is supposed to burst

into flower at the opening song of its winged lover. You

may place a handful of fragrant herbs and flowers before

the nightingale, say the Persian poets, yet he wishes not

in his constant and faithful heart for more than the

sweet breath of his beloved rose —

Though rich the spot

With every flower the earth has got,

What is it to the nightingale

If there his darling rose is not.


But romantic stories of the association of the queen of

flowers with the prince of birds are many, and the reader

may easily find more of them. In a legend told by the

Persian poet Attarall the birds once appeared before

King Solomon and complained that they could not sleep

because of the nightly wailings of the bulbul, who ex-

cused himself on the plea that his love for the rose was

the cause of irrepressible grief. This is the tradition to

which Byron alludes in The Giaour:

The rose o’er crag or vale,

Sultana of the nightingale,

The maid for whom his melody,

His thousand songs, are heard on high,

Blooms blushing to her lover’s tale —

His queen, the garden queen, the rose,

Unbent by winds, unchilled by snows.


tMONG the many proverbial expressions relating to

r\ birds, none, perhaps, is more often on the tongue

than that which implies that the ostrich has the

habit of sticking its head in the sand and regarding itself

as thus made invisible. The oldest written authority

known to me for this notion is the Historical Library of

Diodorus Siculus. Describing Arabia and its products

Diodorus writes:

It produces likewise Beasts of a double nature and mixt

Shape; amongst whom are those that are called Strathocameli,

who have the Shape both of a Camel and an Ostrich… so that

this creature seems both terrestrial and volatile, a Land-Beast

and a Bird: But being not able to fly by reason of the Bulk

of her body, she runs upon the Ground as Swift as if she flew

in the air; and when she is pursued by Horsemen with her Feet she

hurls the Stones that are under her, and many times kills the

Pursuers with the Blows and Strokes they receive. When she

is near being taken, she thrusts her Head under a Shrub or

some such like Cover; not (as some suppose) through Folly or

Blockishness, as if she would not see or be seen by them, but

because her head is the tenderest Part of her Body. 109

It would appear from this that Diodorus was anticipat-

ing me by quoting an ancient legend only to show how

erroneous it was; but the notion has survived his expla-

nation, and supplies a figure of speech most useful to

polemic editors and orators, nor does anyone seem to care

whether or not it expresses a truth. The only founda-


tion I can find or imagine for the origin of this so persis-

tent and popular error in ornithology is that when the

bird is brooding or resting it usually stretches its head

and neck along the ground, and is likely to keep this pros-

trate position in cautious stillness as long as it thinks it

has not been observed by whatever it fears. The futile

trick of hiding its head alone has been attributed to var-

ious other birds equally innocent.

Ostriches in ancient times roamed the deserts of the

East from the Atlas to the Indus, and they came to hold

a very sinister position in the estimation of the early in-

habitants of Mesopotamia, as we learn from the seals and

tablets of Babylonia. There the eagle had become the

type of the principle of Good in the universe, as is else-

where described; and a composite monster, to which the

general term «dragon» is applied, represented the prin-

ciple of Evil. The earliest rude conception of this

monster gave it a beast’s body (sometimes a crocodile’s

but usually a lion’s), always with a bird’s wings, tail, etc.

«From conceiving of the dragon as a monster having a

bird’s head as well as wings and tail, and feathers over

the body, the transition,“ as Dr. Ward 23 remarks, „was

not difficult to regard it entirely as a -bird. But for this

the favorite form was that of an ostrich… the largest

bird known, a mysterious inhabitant of the deserts, swift

to escape and dangerous to attack. No other bird was

so aptly the emblem of power for mischief…. Ac-

cordingly, in the period of about the eighth to the seventh

centuries, B. C, the contest of Marduk, representing

Good in the form of a human hero or sometimes as an

eagle, with an ostrich, or often a pair of them, repre-

senting the evil demon Tiamat, was a favorite subject


with Babylonian artists in the valleys of the Tigris and


In view of their inheritance of these ideas it is no

wonder that Oriental writers far more recent told strange

tales about this bird, especially as to its domestic habits,

as is reflected in the book of Job, where a versified render-

ing of one passage (xxxix, 15, 16) runs thus:

Gavest thou the goodly wings unto the peacocks?

Or wings and feathers unto the ostrich?

Which leaveth her eggs in the earth,

And warmeth them in the dust,

And forgetteth that the foot may crush them,

Or that the wild beast may break them?

She is hardened against her young ones

As though they were not hers:

Because God hath deprived her of wisdom,

Neither hath he imparted to her understanding.

This was more elegant than exact, for ostriches are ex-

ceedingly watchful and patient parents, as they have need

to be, considering the perilous exposure of their nests on

the ground, and the great number of enemies to which

both eggs and young are exposed in the wilderness.

Major S. Hamilton, 110 than whom there is no better au-

thority, testifies to this. «The hen-bird,» he says, «sits

on the eggs by day and the cock relieves her at night,

so that the eggs are never left unguarded during incuba-

tion.» The chicks are able to take care of themselves

after a day or two, and there is no more foundation in

fact for the Biblical charge of cruelty than for that other

Oriental fable that this bird hatches its eggs not by brood-

ing but by the rays of warmth and light from her eyes.

«Both birds are employed,» the fable reads, «for if the

gaze is suspended for only one moment the eggs are


addled, whereupon these bad ones are at once broken.»

It is to this fiction that Southey refers in Thalaba, the


With such a look as fables say

The mother ostrich fixes on her eggs,

Till that intense affection

Kindle its light of life.

Hence, as Burnaby tells us, ostrich eggs were hung in

some Mohammedan mosques as a reminder that «God

will break evil-doers as the ostrich her worthless eggs.»

Professor E. A. Grosvenor notes in his elaborate volumes

on Constantinople, that in the turbeh of Eyouk, the

holiest building and shrine in the Ottoman world, are

suspended «olive lamps and ostrich eggs, the latter sig-

nificant of patience and faith.» Their meanings or at

any rate the interpretations vary locally, but the shells

themselves are favorite mosque ornaments all over Islam,

and an extensive trans-Saharan caravan-trade in them

still exists. Ostrich eggs as well as feathers were im-

ported into ancient Egypt and Phoenicia from the Land

of Punt (Somaliland) and their shells have been re-

covered from early tombs, or sometimes clay models of

them, as at Hu, where Petrie found an example decorated

with an imitation of the network of cords by which it

could be carried about, just as is done to this day by the

Central-African negroes, who utilize these shells as water-

bottles, and carry a bundle of them in a netting bag.

Other examples were painted; and Wilkinson surmises

that these were suspended in the temples of the ancient

Egyptians as they now are in those of the Copts. The

Punic tombs about Carthage, and those of Mycenae, in

Greece, have yielded painted shells of these eggs; and


five were exhumed from an Etruscan tomb, ornamented

with bands of fantastic figures of animals either engraved

or painted on the shell, the incised lines filled with gold;

what purpose they served, or whether any religious sig-

nificance was attached to them, is not known. Eggs are

still to be found in many Spanish churches hanging near

the Altar: they are usually goose-eggs, but may be a

reflection of the former Moorish liking for those of the

ostrich in their houses of worship.

To return for a moment to the notion that the ostrich

breaks any eggs that become addled (by the way, how

could the bird know which were «gone bad»?), let me add

a preposterous variation of this, quoted from a German

source by Goldsmith 32 in relation to the rhea, the South

American cousin of the ostrich — all, of course, arrant


The male compels twenty or more females to lay their eggs

in one nest; he then, when they have done laying, chases them

away and places himself upon the eggs; however, he takes the

singular precaution of laying two of the number aside, which

he does not sit upon. When the young one comes forth these

two eggs are addled; which the male having foreseen, breaks

one and then the other, upon which multitudes of flies are

found to settle; and these supply the young brood with a

sufficiency of provision till they are able to shift for themselves.

Another popular saying is: «I have the digestion of

an ostrich!»

What does this mean? Ancient books went so far as

to say that ostriches subsisted on iron alone, although

they did not take the trouble to explain where in the

desert they could obtain this vigorous diet. A picture in

one of the Beast Books gives a recognizable sketch of

the bird with a great key in its bill and near by a horse-


shoe for a second course. In heraldry, which is a

museum of antique notions, the ostrich, when used as a

bearing, is always depicted as holding in its mouth a

Passion-nail (emblem of the Church militant), or a horse-

shoe (reminder of knightly Prowess on horseback), or

a key (signifying religious and temporal power).

An amusing passage in Sir Thomas Browne’s famous

book, Common and Vulgar Errors 33 — which is a queer

combination of sagacity, ignorance, superstition and

credulity — is his solemn argument against the belief

prevalent in his day (1605—82) that ostriches ate iron;

but he quotes his predecessors from Aristotle down to

show how many philosophers have given it credence with-

out proof. The great misfortune of medieval thinkers

appears to have been that they were bound hand and foot

to the dead knowledge contained in ancient Greek and

Latin books — a sort of mental mortmain that blocked

any progress in science. They made of Aristotle,

especially, a sort of sacred fetish, whose statements and

conclusions must not be «checked» by any fresh observa-

tion or experiment. Browne was one of the first to ex-

hibit a little independence of judgment, and to suspect

that possibly, as Lowell puts it, «they didn’t know every-

thing down in Judee.»

«As for Pliny,» Sir Thomas informs us, «he saith

plainly that the ostrich concocteth whatever it eateth.

Now the Doctor acknowledgeth it eats iron: ergo, ac-

cording to Pliny it concocts iron. Africandus tells us

that it devours iron. Farnelius is so far from extenua-

ting the matter that he plainly confirms it, and shows that

this concoction is performed by the nature of its whole

essence. As for Riolanus, his denial without ground we

regard not. Albertus speaks not of iron but of stones


which it swallows and excludes again without nutriment.»

This is an excellent example of the way those old

fellows considered a matter of fact as if it were one of

opinion — as if the belief or non-belief of a bunch of

ancients, who knew little or nothing of the subject, made

a thing so or not so. Sir Thomas seems to have been

struggling out of this fog of metaphysics and shyly

squinting at the facts of nature; yet it is hard to follow

his logic to the conclusion that the allegation of iron-eat-

ing and «concocting» (by which I suppose digestion is

meant) is not true, but he was right. The poets, how-

ever, clung to the story. John Skelton (1460—1529) in

his long poem Phyllip Sparrow writes of

The estryge that wyll eate

An horshowe so great

In the stede of meate

Such feruent heat

His stomake doth freat [fret].

Ben Johnson makes one of his characters in Every Man

in his Humor assure another, who declares he could eat

the very sword-hilts for hunger, that this is evidence that

he has good digestive power — «You have an ostrich’s

stomach.» And in Shakespeare’s Henry VI is the re-

mark: «I’ll make thee eat iron like an ostrich, and

swallow my sword.»

Readers of Goldsmith’s Animated Nature, 32 published

more than a century later (1774) as a popular book of

instruction in natural history (about which he knew

nothing by practical observation outside of an Irish

county or two), learned that ostriches «will devour

leather, hair, glass, stones, anything that is given them,

but all metals lose a part of their weight and often the


extremities of the figure.» That the people remembered

this is shown by the fact that zoological gardens have lost

many specimens of these birds, which seem to have a very

weak sense of taste, because of their swallowing copper

coins and other metallic objects fed to them by experi-

mental visitors, which they could neither assimilate nor

get rid of. It is quite likely that the bird’s reputation for

living on iron was derived from similarly feeding the cap-

tive specimens kept for show in Rome and various East-

ern cities, the fatal results of which were unnoticed by

the populace. The wild ostrich contents itself with tak-

ing into its gizzard a few small stones, perhaps picked

up and swallowed accidentally, which assist it in grinding

hard food, as is the habit of many ground-feeding fowls.

Much the same delusion exists with regard to the emeu.

If I were to repeat a tithe of the absurdities and

medical superstitions (or pure quackery) related of birds

in the «bestiaries,» as the books of the later medieval pe-

riod answering to our natural histories were named, the

reader would soon tire of my pages; but partly as a

sample, and partly because the pelican is not only

familiar in America but is constantly met in proverbs, in

heraldry, and in ecclesiastical art and legend, I think it

worth while to give some early explanations of the

curious notion expressed in the heraldic phrase «the

pelican in its piety.» It stands for a very ancient mis-

understanding of the action of a mother-pelican alight-

ing on her nest, and opening her beak so that her young

ones may pick from her pouch the predigested fish she

offers them within it. As the interior of her mouth is

reddish, she appeared to some imaginative observer long

ago to display a bleeding breast at which her nestlings

were plucking. Now observe how, according to Hazlitt, 84


that medieval nature- fakir, Philip de Thaum, who wrote

The Anglo-Norman Bestiary about 1120, embroiders his

ignorance to gratify the appetite of his age for marvels —

sensations, as we say nowadays — and so sell his book:

«Of such a nature it is,» he says of the pelican, «when it comes

to its young birds, and they are great and handsome, and it

will fondle them, cover them with its wings; the little birds

are fierce, take to pecking it — desire to eat it and pick out its

two eyes; then it pecks and takes them, and slays them with

torment; and thereupon leaves them — leaves them lying dead —

then returns on the third day, is grieved to find them dead, and

makes such lamentation, when it sees its little birds dead, that

with its beak it strikes its body that the blood issues forth; the

blood goes dropping, and falls on its young birds — the blood

has such quality that by it they come to life»

and so on, all in sober earnest. But he made a botch of

it, for earlier and better accounts show that the male

bird kills the youngsters because when they begin to grow

large they rebel at his control and provoke him; when the

mother returns she brings them to life by pouring over

them her blood. Moreover, there crept in a further cor-

ruption of the legend to the effect that the nestlings were

killed by snakes, as Drayton writes in his Noah’s Flood:

By them there sat the loving pellican

Whose young ones, poison’d by the serpent’s sting,

With her own blood again to life doth bring.

St. Jerome seems to have had this version in mind

when he made the Christian application, saying that as

the pelican’s young, «killed by serpents,» were saved by

the mother’s blood, so was the salvation by the Christ re-

lated to those dead in sin. This point is elaborated some-

what in my chapter on Symbolism.


Before I leave this bird I want to quote a lovely para-

graph on pelican habits, far more modern than anything

«medieval,» for it is taken from the Arctic Zoology

(1784) of Thomas Pennant, who was a good naturalist,

but evidently a little credulous, although the first half of

the quotation does not overstrain our faith. He is speak-

ing of pelicans that he saw in Australia, and explains:

They feed upon fish, which they take sometimes by plunging

from a great height in the air and seizing like the

gannet; at other times they fish in concert, swimming

in flocks, and forming a large circle in the great rivers

which they gradually contract, beating the water with their

wings and feet in order to drive the fish into the centre; which

when they approach they open their vast mouths and fill their

pouches with their prey, then incline their bills to empty the

bag of the waters; after which they swim to shore and eat their

booty in quiet. … It is said that when they make their nests

in the dry deserts, they carry the water to their young in the

vast pouches, and that the lions and beasts of prey come there

to quench their thirst, sparing the young, the cause of this

salutary provision. Possibly on this account the Egyptians style

this bird the camel of the river — the Persians tacub, or water-


Now let us look at the Trochilus legend, and trace how

an African plover became changed into an American

hummingbird. The story, first published by Herodotus,

that some sort of bird enters the mouth of a Nile crocodile

dozing on the sand with its jaws open, and picks bits of

food from the palate and teeth, apparently to the rep-

tile’s satisfaction, is not altogether untrue. The bird

alluded to is the Egyptian plover, which closely re-

sembles the common British lapwing; and there seems

to be no doubt that something of the sort does really

take place when crocodiles are lying with open mouth

on the Nile bank, as they often do. This lapwing has a


tall, pointed crest standing up like a spur on the top of

its head, and this fact gives «point,» in more senses than

one, to the extraordinary version of the Herodotus story

in one of the old plays, The White Devil, by John Web-

ster (1612), where an actor says:

«Stay, my lord! I’ll tell you a tale. The crocodile, which

lives in the river Nilus, hath a worm breeds i’ the teeth of ’t,

which puts it to extreme anguish: a little bird, no bigger than

a wren, is barber-surgeon to this crocodile; flies into the jaws

of ’t, picks out the worm, and brings present remedy. The fish,

glad of ease, but ingrateful to her that did it, that the bird may

not talk largely of her abroad for nonpayment, closeth her

chaps, intending to swallow her, and so put her to perpetual

silence. But nature, loathing such ingratitude, hath armed this

bird with a quill or prick on the head, top o’ the which wounds

the crocodile i’ the mouth, forceth her open her bloody prison,

and away flies the pretty tooth-picker from her cruel patient.»

A most curious series of mistakes has arisen around

this matter. Linguists tell us that the common name

among the ancient Greeks for a plover was trochilus

(rpoxtW), and that this is the word used by Herodotus for

his crocodile-bird. But in certain passages of his His-

tory of Animals Aristotle uses this word to designate a

wren; it has been supposed that this was a copyist’s error,

writing carelessly rpoxiAos for Vx i ^ 0?> but it was repeated

by Pliny in recounting what Herodotus had related, and

this naturally led to the statement by some medieval com-

pilers that the crocodile’s tooth-cleaner was a wren.

This, however, is not the limit of the confusion, for when

American hummingbirds became known in Europe, and

were placed by some naturalists of the 17th century in

the Linnaean genus (Trochilus) with the wrens, one

writer at least, Paul Lucas, 1774 (if Brewer’s Handbook

may be trusted), asserted that the hummingbird as well


as the lapwing entered the jaws of Egyptian crocodiles —

and that he had seen them do it!

This curious tissue of right and wrong was still fur-

ther embroidered by somebody’s assertion that the

diminutive attendant’s kindly purpose was «to pick from

the teeth a little insect» that greatly annoyed the huge

reptile. Even Tom Moore knew no better than to write

in Lalla Rookh of

The puny bird that dares with pleasing hum

Within the crocodile’s stretched jaws to come.

The full humor of this will be perceived by those who

remember that hummingbirds are exclusively American —

not Oriental. Finally Linnaeus confirmed all this mixture

of mistakes by fastening the name Trochilidae on the

Hummingbird family.

Finally, John Josselyn, Gent., in his Rarities of Nezv

England, calls our American chimney-swift a «troculus,»

and describes its nesting absurdly thus :

The troculus — a small bird, black and white, no bigger than

a swallow, the points of whose feathers are sharp, which they

stick into the sides of the chymney (to rest themselves), their

legs being exceedingly short) where they breed in nests made

like a swallow’s nest, but of a glewy substance; and which is

not fastened to the chymney as a swallow’s nest, but hangs

down the chymney by a clew-like string a yard long. They

commonly have four or five young ones; and when they go

away, which is much about the time that swallows used to de-

part, they never fail to throw down one of their young birds

into the room by way of gratitude. I have more than once ob-

served, that, against the ruin of the family, these birds will

suddenly forsake the house, and come no more.

Another unfortunate but long-accepted designation in

systematic ornithology was attached by Linnaeus to the


great bird of paradise in naming this species Paradisca

apoda (footless); and it was done through an even worse

misunderstanding than in the case of Trochilus — or else

as a careless joke. It is true that at that time no perfect

specimen had been seen in Europe; yet it is hard to under-

stand Linne’s act, for he could not have put more faith

in the alleged natural footlessness of this bird than in the

many other marvelous qualities ascribed to it. Wallace

has recounted some of these myths in his Malay

Archipelago: 35

When the earliest European voyagers reached the Moluccas

in search of cloves and nutmegs, they were presented with the

dried skins of birds so strange and beautiful as to excite the

admiration even of those wealth-seeking rovers. The Malay

traders gave them the name of «manuk dewata,» or God’s birds;

and the Portuguese, finding they had no feet or wings, and being

unable to learn anything authentic about them, called them

«passares de sol» or birds of the sun; while the learned Dutch-

men, who wrote in Latin, called them avis paradeus or paradise-

bird. Jan van Linschoten gives these names in 1598, and tells

las that no one has seen these birds alive, for they live in the

air, always turning toward the sun, and never lighting on the

earth till they die; for they have neither feet nor wings, as he

adds, may be seen by the birds carried to India, and sometimes

to Holland, but being very costly they were rarely seen in

Europe. More than a hundred years later Mr. William Fennel,

who accompanied Dampier… saw specimens at Amboyna

and was told that they came to Banda to eat nutmegs, which in-

toxicated them, and made them fall senseless, when they were

killed by ants. [Tavernier explains that the ants ate away their

legs — thus accounting for the footlessness.]

It is to this nutmeg dissipation that Tom Moore alludes

in Lalla Rookh:

Those golden birds that in the spice time drop

About the gardens, drunk with that sweet fruit

Whose scent has lured them o’er the summer flood.


The unromantic fact was that the natives of the Moluccas

then, as now, after skilfully shooting with arrows or

blow-guns and skinning the (male) birds, cut off the legs

and dusky wings and folded the prepared skin about a

stick run through the body and mouth, in which form

«paradise-birds» continued to come to millinery markets

in New York and London. A somewhat similar blunder

in respect to swallows (or swifts?) has given us in the

martlet, as a heraldic figure, a quaint perpetuation of an

error in natural history. «Even at the present day,»

remarks Fox Davies, 111 speaking of England, «it is popu-

larly believed that the swallow has no feet… at any

rate the heraldic swallow is never represented with feet,

the legs terminating with the feathers that cover the


I do not know where Dryden got the information sug-

gesting his comparison, in Threnodia Augustalis, «like

birds of paradise that lived on mountain dew»; but the

idea is as fanciful as the modern Malay fiction that this

bird drops its egg, which bursts as it approaches the

earth, releasing a fully developed young bird. Another

account is that the hen lays her eggs on the back of her

mate. Both theories are wild guesses in satisfaction of

ignorance, for no one yet knows precisely the breeding-

habits of these shy forest-birds, the females of which are

rarely seen. Dryden may have read that in Mexico, as

a Spanish traveller reported, hummingbirds live on dew;

or he may have heard of the medieval notion that ravens

were left to be nourished by the dews of heaven, and,

with poetic license to disregard classification, transferred

the feat to the fruit-eating birds of paradise.

Next comes that old yarn about geese that grow on

trees. When or where it arose nobody knows, but some-


where in the Middle Ages, for Max Miiller quotes a car-

dinal of the nth century who represented the goslings

as bursting, fully fledged, from fruit resembling apples.

A century later (1187) Giraldus Cambrensis, an arch-

deacon reproving laxity among the priests in Ireland, con-

demns the practice of eating barnacle geese in Lent on

the plea that they are fish; and soon afterward Innocent

III forbade it by decree. Queer variants soon appeared.

A legend relating to Ireland inscribed on a Genoese

world-map, and described by Dr. Edward L. Stevenson

in a publication of The Hispanic Society (New York)

reads: «Certain of their trees bear fruit which, decaying

within, produces a worm which, as it subsequently de-

velops, becomes hairy and feathered, and, provided

wings, flies like a bird.»

An extensive clerical literature grew up in Europe in

discussion of the ethics of this matter, for the monks

liked good eating and their Lenten fare was miserably

scanty, and a great variety of explanations of the alleged

marine birth of these birds — ordinary geese (Branta

bernicla) when mature — were contrived. That some-

thing of the kind was true nobody in authority denied

down to the middle of the 17th century, when a German

Jesuit, Gaspar Schott, was bold enough to declare that

although the birth-place of this uncommon species of

goose was unknown (it is now believed to breed in

Spitzbergen and Nova Zembla), undoubtedly it was pro-

duced from incubated eggs like any other goose. Never-

theless the fable was reaffirmed in the Philosophical

Transactions of the Scottish Royal Society for 1677.

Henry Lee 38 recalls two versions of the absurd but preva-

lent theory. One is that certain trees, resembling willows,

and growing always close to the sea, produced at the ends


of their branches fruits in the shape of apples, each con-

taining the embryo of a goose, which, when the fruit was

ripe, fell into the water and flew away. The other is that

the geese were bred from a fungus growing on rotten

timber floating at sea, and were first developed in the

form of worms in the substance of the wood.

It is plain that this fable sprang from the similitude

to the wings of tiny birds of the feathery arms that

sessile barnacles reach out from their shells to clutch from

the water their microscopic food, and also to the remote

likeness the naked heads and necks of young birds bear

to stalked or «whale» barnacles (Lepas). Both these

cirripeds are found attached to floating wood, and some-

times to tree-branches exposed to waves and to high tides.

The deception so agreeable to hungry churchmen was

abetted by the etymologies in the older dictionaries. Dr.

Murray, editor of The New Oxford Dictionary, asserts,

however, that the origin of the word «barnacle» is not

known, but that certainly it was applied to the mature

goose before its was given to the cirriped.

Speaking of geese, what is the probable source of the

warning «Don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs»

beyond or behind the obvious moral of ^Esop’s familiar

fable? The only light on the subject that has come to

me is the following passage in Bayley’s 24 somewhat

esoteric book:

The Hindoos represent Brahma, the Breath of Life, as riding

upon a goose, and the Egyptians symbolized Seb, the father of

Osiris, as a goose…. According to the Hindoo theory of

creation the Supreme Spirit laid a golden egg resplendent as the

sun, and from the golden egg was born Brahma, the progenitor

of the Universe. The Egyptians had a similar story, and de-

scribed the sun as an egg laid by the primeval goose, in later


times said to be a god. It is probable that our fairy tale of

the goose that laid the golden egg is a relic of this very ancient


These notions in India probably were the seed of a

Buddhist legend that comes a little nearer to our quest.

According to this legend the Buddha (to be) was born

a Brahmin, and after growing up was married and his

wife bore him three daughters. After his death he was

born again as a golden mallard (which is a duck), and

determined to give his golden feathers one by one for the

support of his former family. This beneficence went on,

the mallard-Bodhisat helping at intervals by a gift of a

feather. Then one day the mother proposed to pluck the

bird clean, and, despite the protests of the daughters, did

so. But at that instant the golden feathers ceased to be

golden. His wings grew again, but they were plain white.

It may be added that the Pali word for golden goose

is hansa, whence the Latin anser, goose, German gans,

the root, gan appearing in our words gander and gannet;

so that it appears that the «mallard» was a goose, after

all — and so was the woman!

This may not explain iEsop, for that fabulist told or

wrote his moral anecdotes a thousand years before Bud-

dhism was heard of; but it is permissible to suppose that

so simple a lesson in bad management might have been

taught in India ages before y£sop (several of whose

fables have been found in early Egyptian papyri), and

was only repeated, in a new dressing, by good Buddhists,

as often happens with stories having a universal appeal

to our sense of practical philosophy or of humor.

We have had occasion to speak of the eagle in many

different aspects, as the elected king of the birds, as an

emblem of empire, and so on, but there remain for use


in this chapter some very curious attributes assigned to

the great bird by ancient wonder-mongers that long ago

would have been lost in the discarded rubbish of primi-

tive ideas — mental toys of the childhood of the world —

had they not been preserved for us in the undying pages

of literature. Poetry, especially, is a sort of museum

of antique inventions, preserving for us specimens —

often without labels — of speculative stages in the early

development of man’s comprehension of nature.

In the case of the eagle (as a genus, in the Old World

not always clearly distinguished from vultures and the

larger hawks) it is sometimes difficult to say whether

some of its legendary aspects are causes or effects of

others. Was its solar quality, for example, a cause or a

consequence of its supposed royalty in the bird tribe?

The predatory power, lofty flight, and haughty yet noble

mien of the true eagle, may account for both facts, to-

gether or separately. It would be diving too deeply into

the murky depths of mythology to show full proof, but

it may be accepted that everywhere, at least in the East,

the fountain of superstitions, the eagle typified the sun

in its divine aspect. This appears as a long-accepted con-

ception at the very dawn of history among the sun-wor-

shippers of the Euphrates Valley, and it persisted in art

and theology until Christianity remodelled such «heathen»

notions to suit the new trend of religious thought, and

transformed the «bird of fire» into a symbol of the

Omnipotent Spirit — an ascription which artists inter-

preted very liberally.

In Egypt a falcon replaced it in its religious signifi-

cance, true eagles being rare along the Nile, and «eagle-

hawks» were kept in the sun-gods’ temples, sacred to

Horus (represented with a hawk-head surmounted by a


sun-disk), Ra, Osiris, Seku, and other solar divinities.

«It was regarded,» as Mr. Cook explains in Zeus, 37 «as

the only bird that could look with unflinching gaze at

the sun, being itself filled with sunlight, and eventually

akin to fire.» Later, people made it the sacred bird of

Apollo, and Mithraic worshippers spoke of Helios as a

hawk, but crude superstitions among the populace were

mixed with this priestly reverence.

It was universally believed of the eagle, that, as an old

writer said, «she can see into the great glowing sun»;

few if any were aware that she could veil her eyes by

drawing across the orbs that third eyelid which naturalists

term the nictitating membrane. Hence arose that fur-

ther belief, lasting well into the Middle Ages, that the

mother-bird proved her young by forcing them to gaze

upon the sun, and discarding those who shrank from the

fiery test — «Like Eaglets bred to Soar, Gazing on Starrs

at heaven’s mysterious Pow’r,» wrote an anonymous poet

in 1652. «Before that her little ones be feathered,» in the

words of an old compiler of marvels quoted by Hulme, 38

«she will beat and strike them with her wings, and thereby

force them to looke full against the sunbeams. Now if

she sees any one of them to winke, or their eies to water

at the raies of the sunne, she turns it with the head fore-

most out of the nest as a bastard.»

How many who now read the 103d Psalm, or that fine

figure of rhetoric in Milton’s Areopagitica, could explain

the full meaning of the comparison used? The passage

referred to is that in which Milton exclaims: «Methinks

I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation rousing her-

self like a strong man after sleep…. Methinks I see

her renewing her mighty youth, and kindling her undaz-

zled eyes at the sun.» Milton evidently expected all his


readers to appreciate the value of his simile — to know

that eagles were credited with just this power of juvenes-

cence. «When,» in the words of an even older chronicler,

«an eagle hathe darkness and dimness in een, and heavi-

nesse in wings, against this disadvantage she is taught by

kinde to seek a well of springing water, and then she flieth

up into the aire as far as she may, till she be full hot by

heat of the air and by travaille of flight, and so then by

heat the pores being opened, and the feathers chafed, and

she f alleth sideingly into the well, and there the feathers

be chaunged and the dimness of her een is wiped away

and purged, and she taketh again her might and strength.»

Isn’t that a finely constructed tale? Spencer thought so

when he wrote:

As eagle fresh out of the ocean wave,

Where he hath left his plumes, all hoary gray,

And decks himself with feathers, youthful, gay.

Margaret C. Walker 39 elaborates the legend in her

excellent book, suggesting that it may have originated in

contemplation of the great age to which eagles are sup-

posed to live; but to my mind it grew out of the ancient

symbolism that made the eagle represent the sun, which

plunges into the western ocean every night, and rises,

its youth renewed every morning.

«It is related,,, says Miss Walker, «that when this bird feels

the season of youth is passing by, and when his young are still

in the nest, he leaves the aging earth and soars toward the

sun, the consumer of all that is harmful. Mounting upward to

the third region of the air — the region of meteors — he circles

and swings about under the great fiery ball in their midst, turn-

ing every feather to its scorching rays, then, with wings drawn

back, like a meteor himself, he drops into some cold spring or

into the ocean wave there to have the heat driven inward by

the soul-searching chill of its waters. Then flying to his eyrie


he nestles among his warm fledglings, till, starting into perspi-

ration, he throws off his age with his feathers. That his re-

juvenescence may be complete, as his sustenance must be of

youth, he makes prey of his young, feeding on the nestlings

that have warmed him. He is clothed anew and youth is again


Cruden’s Concordance B1 to the Bible, first published in

1737, contains under «Eagle» a fine lot of old Semitic

misinformation as to the habits of eagles, which Cruden

gives his clerical readers apparently in complete faith and

as profitable explanations of the biblical passages in which

that bird is mentioned. Allow me to quote some of these

as an addition to our collection, for I find them retained

without comment in the latest edition of this otherwise

admirable work:

It is said that when an eagle sees its young ones so well-

grown, as to venture upon flying, it hovers over their nest,

flutters with its wings, and excites them to imitate it, and take

their flight, and when it sees them weary or fearful it takes

them upon its back, and carries them so, that the fowlers can-

not hurt the young without piercing through the body of the

old one. … It is of great courage, so as to set on harts and

great beasts. And has no less subtility in taking them; for hav-

ing filled its wings with sand and dust, it sitteth on their horns,

and by its wings shaketh it in their eyes, whereby they become

an easy prey. … It goeth forth to prey about noon, when

men are gone home from the fields.

It hath a little eye, but a very quick sight, and discerns its

prey afar off, and beholds the sun with open eyes, Such of her

young as through weakness of sight cannot behold the sun, it

rejects as unnatural. It liveth long, nor dieth of age or sick-

ness, say some, but of hunger, for by age its bill grows so

hooked that it cannot feed. … It is said that it preserves its

nest from poison, by having therein a precious stone, named

Aetites (without which it is thought the eagle cannot lay her

eggs …) and keepeth it clean by the frequent use of the herb

maidenhair. Unless it be very hungry it devoureth not whole

prey, but leaveth part of it for other birds, which follow. Its


feathers, or quills, are said to consume other quills that lie near

them. Between the eagle and dragon there is constant enmity,

the eagle seeking to kill it, and the dragon breaks all the

eagle’s eggs it can find.

If the Jewish eagles are as smart as that, my sympathies

are with the dragon!

The relations between Zeus, or Jupiter, and the eagle,

mostly reprehensible, belong to classic mythology; and

they have left little trace in folklore, which, be it re-

membered, takes account of living or supposed realities,

not of mythical creatures. The most notable bit, per-

haps, is the widely accepted notion that this bird is never

killed by lightning; is «secure from thunder and un-

harmed by Jove,» as Dryden phrases it. Certain common

poetic allusions explain themselves, for instance, that in

The Myrmidons of ^Eschylus:

So, in the Libyan fable it is told

That once an eagle, stricken with a dart,

Said, when he saw the fashion of the shaft,

«With our own feathers, not by others’ hands

«Are we now smitten/

These little narratives, which are certainly interesting

if true — as they are not — are good examples of the

failure to exercise what may be called the common-sense

of science.

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