Birds have been associated with numerous roles in mythologies across the world, the most common theme being messengers from the gods, foretelling omens.
The Wren, King of the Birds
It is considered to be a “most sacred bird" by the ancient druids in Ireland due to its musical notes for divination.
The Breton druids have given the wren an honoured role in their folklore, they believe that it was the wren that brought fire from the gods but as she flew back down to earth her wings began to burn so she passed her gift to the robin, whose chest plumage began to burst into flames. The lark came to the rescue, finally bringing the gift of fire to the world.
The wren’s eggs are said to be protected by lightning. Whoever tries to steal wren’s eggs or even baby wrens would find their house struck by lightning and their hands would shrivel up.
- It is called Drui-en, or Druid bird in Irish Gaelic. In Welsh, the word Dryw means both druid and wren.
- The wren is as is the Druid known to be cunning. The wren could soar to heights while also navigating hedges and underbrush.
- The wren was hunted and killed in a ritualistic way, enacting the idea that the death of a god bestows strength on his killer, a variant of the belief that in the killing of the old king, his powers will be passed on to his successor.
- The wren symbolised wisdom and divinity. It is difficult to catch sight of a wren. At New Year it is said that the apprentice Druid would go out by himself into the countryside in search of hidden wisdom. If he found a wren he would take that as a sign that he would be blessed with inner knowledge in the coming year. Finding a creature small and elusive to the point of invisibility was a metaphor for finding the elusive divinity within all life.
- Lightning was the weapon of the thunder bull-god Taranis, who often inhabited oak trees, and the wren was sacred to Taranis.
The Ravens in the Tower of London
Wild Ravens which were once abundant in London and often seen around meat markets fasting on scraps, could have roosted at the tower in earlier times. However, there is evidence that Ravens were donated to the tower by the Earls of DunRaven. Perhaps because of their association with the Celtic Raven-god Bran whose name means Raven or Crow.
It is believed that if the ravens leave the Tower of London, that the kingdom will fall and disaster will ensue. To this day ravens are kept at the Tower, and their wings are clipped to ensure that they cannot leave. The birds are paid for by the British government and one of the Tower’s beefeaters is appointed as Ravenmaster to care for the birds.
“If the Tower of London ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it.”
According to folklore, wild ravens are thought to have inhabited the Tower for many centuries, supposedly first attracted there by the smell of the corpses of the executed enemies of the Crown. Allegedly, at the execution of Anne Boleyn in 1535, "Even the ravens of the Tower sat silent and immovable on the battlements and gazed eerily at the strange scene. A Queen about to die!" The ravens of the Tower supposedly behaved much worse during the execution of Lady Jane Grey in 1554, allegedly “pecking the eyes from the severed head” of the queen.
It is a supernatural raven in Danish folklore. The ravens appear in traditional Danish folksongs, where they are described as originating from ravens who consume the bodies of the dead on the battlefield, as capable of turning into the form of a knight after consuming the heart of a child, and, alternately, as half-wolf and half-raven creatures.
According to folklore, when a king or chieftain was killed in battle and not found and buried, ravens came and ate him. The ravens became valravne. The valravne that ate the king’s heart gained human knowledge and could perform great malicious acts, could lead people astray, had superhuman powers, and were “terrible animals”.
In another account, a valravn is described as a soul in search of redemption that flies by night (but never day) and can only free itself from its animal countenance by consuming the blood of a child. This is reflected in a Danish traditional song that describes how, after refusing offers of riches, the Valravn makes an agreement with a maiden to take her to her betrothed after she promises the valravn her first-born son. After the agreement, the valravn flies away. In time, the couple have a child and the Valravn returns, and asks the maiden if she has forgotten her promise. The valravn takes the child away, and tears into the chest of his won wager and consumes the blood contained within the child’s heart. As a result, the valravn transforms into a knight.
Folk Belief: Transformation Into a Bird
Under certain conditions, the living could be transformed into birds. In some cultures, it was believed that shamans, priests, and prophets could change themselves into birds during trances or other mystical states. Such ideas were found in Siberia and Indonesia. In Celtic mythology, both deities and the sly supernatural beings called faeries were said to have the power to transform themselves into birds.
Some legends involve birds that change into or inhabit the bodies of humans. The Central American god Quetzalcoatl, a combination of a bird and a serpent, appears as a culture hero or a god in human form in Toltec, Maya, and Aztec myths. Among certain peoples in northern Europe and Asia, the spirits of birds such as eagles, owls, and crows are said to enter the bodies of shamans to inspire them.
In some myths, humans and other beings acquire the ability to fly like birds. Such supernatural flight, like many mythological powers, can be either good or evil. Norse tales told that the goddess Freya’s feather cloak enabled the wearer to fly. European tradition portrayed angels with wings like those of birds, but devils often had bat wings. Japanese mythology includes a group of winged deities known as tengu. Part bird and part human, they live in forests and occasionally use their powers to play tricks on people.
Superstitions Concerning Birds
- It is good luck if a blackbird makes a nest on your home.
- If you see 5 crows, sickness will follow; see 6 crows and death will follow.
- To avoid bad luck tip your hat if you see a magpie.
- It is bad luck to see an owl during the day.
- Three seagulls flying together, directly overhead, are a warning of death soon to come.
- Sparrows carry the souls of the dead, so it is unlucky to kill one.
- When a swan lays its head and neck back over its body during the daytime it means a storm is coming.
- A bird that flies into a house foretells an important message. However, if the bird dies, or is white, this foretells death.
- A bird calling from the north means a tragedy is on the way, from the west brings good luck, from the south means the harvest will be plentiful, and from the east one will find true love.
- If you break a robin’s egg something of yours will soon be broken. It is also believed that whatever you to do a robin, the same will happen to you.
- If the first bird you see on Valentine’s Day is a robin, you will marry a sailor.
- Peacock feathers carry the evil eye. The birds and feathers are considered to be bad luck.
- The dove is the one bird that the devil cannot change into. Doves are immune to the devil’s curses.
- An albatross flying around a sailing ship means bad weather and high winds are on the way.
- Magpies are supposed to be the devil in disguise. If a magpie is hanging around your house the devil is trying to cause trouble for you. If you carry an onion it will keep him away. You can also tip your hat and cross your fingers or spit three times over your shoulder and say “devil, devil, I defy thee.” In Scotland they believe the magpie hides a drop of Satan’s blood under its tongue.
- When a rooster crows at dawn it is the signal for all evil spirits to return to the underworld.