#FolkloreThursday – Magical Flight with Birds

My current PhD research is focused on looking at animals in ritual, so I’ll be making short blog posts examining the different ways animals are seen in cosmological contexts as part of my own contribution to the #FolkloreThursday feed on Twitter. 

Wood Pigeon
A wood pigeon skull with its ulna – note the notches on the ulna, where feathers would attach.

In my recent work with mixed assemblages involved in funerary rites, I’ve come across many bird bones. At this preliminary stage in my research, it appears that butchered birds may have been incorporated into rites performed at this site.

But why birds? What’s so special about them?

Birds, barring a few examples, have the unique ability to fly. To those in the past, this was probably acknowledged as an act emblematic of supernatural power, the ability to move from the heavens to the earth with ease. Birds were considered divine messengers, whose appearance could indicate an omen from the gods and goddesses above.

Shamans in various communities have been noted to adopt aspects of the bird in their work and appearance; this displays their power of “flying” from one world to the next.

Throughout later prehistoric Europe, birds continued to have an association with the mystical and the magical. Birds such as ravens and crows have been known to “talk”, which ultimately associated them with divination and prophecy. Birds of prey and scavenging birds were most likely incorporated into funerary rites involving excarnation, or the defleshing of a body – this, in turn, led to an association of these birds with death. Wild birds appear to have been hunted, but not necessarily eaten – perhaps these birds were participants in ritualistic hunting?

Helmut of Ciumesti
This helmet from Ciumesti is an example of co-opting the bird of prey as a means of showcasing an almost otherworldly fierceness

These beliefs have been observed in various artefacts from the later prehistoric – this includes Iron Age art depicting wings, drinking vessels decorated with waterbirds, and even weaponry and armour using bird motifs.

Of course, these aren’t the only instances of the magical properties of birds – we see this in various myths across cultures, from Odin’s ravens to Athena’s owl. Birds continue to be associated with the magical to this day…what would Harry Potter be without Hedwig, after all?

Bird Ulna
A comparison of different birds and their ulna bones – (top to bottom) herring gull, eider duck, and magpie. Again, note the notches for feathers!

References

Eliade, M. (1964) Shamanism: Archaic Technique of Ectasy. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.

Green, M. (1992) Animals in Celtic Life and Myth. London: Routledge.

Harding, D. W. (2016) Death and Burial in Iron Age Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Serjeantson, D. and Morris, J. (2011) Ravens and Crows in Iron Age and Roman Britain. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 30 (1), 85-107.

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