Bird Week: Mythology and Birds

The Seattle Public Library is partnering with the Seward Park Audubon Center for the first ever Seattle Bird Week, April 23-30, in celebration of the center’s tenth anniversary.

Throughout human mythology, birds fly with us, inspire us, sing to us, and explain the natural world to us.

Image from the British Museum.

Consider the ancient Greeks using the idea of a bird to teach moral lessons. Imagine you are Icarus, that legendary character, who wearing wings made of wax and bird feathers, are leaping off a tower of imprisonment in sunny Crete. Free, you soar higher and higher into the clear blue skies, despite being warned not to do that by Daedalus, your famously clever father, who designed the wings after he studied birds in flight. Unbound from constraint, gravity, and the plodding limits of your own nature, you are rapturous with the joy of flight, and ignore his admonitions, to your peril. View the full story in this streamed video from our website.

Raven at the Headwaters of Nass hat, Attributed to Kadyisdu.axch’, Tlingit, Kiks.ádi clan, active late 18th – early 19th century; Seattle Art Museum; Photo by Joe Mabel. Photo links to full info.

Nearly every culture in every place has imagined flying like birds, or has imagined birds with human personalities, or with cultural significance. Nearer to home, The Raven is the impish, devious, iconic symbol of Native Northwest Coast mythology. Who dropped a rock and created the world? Who mischievously released some beings from a clam shell and brought people into that world? Who stole light and let it out into the world? It was I, quoth The Raven, all for myself, but it may have had an effect upon you!  The Raven is a trickster, selfish and devious, who changed the world through cunning and slyness. Haida artist Bill Reid tells about the Raven and other stories here.

And then there is that bird of eternity, forever being regenerated in the flames of destruction, the Phoenix, the Firebird, “Feng Huang,” or other names in yet other cultures. According to some versions, the Firebird was there to see the Garden of Eden, sharing humanity’s periodical rebirths after floods, fires, and mayhem. As such it has symbolic meaning for the death and life cycle, and the concept of the immortality of souls found in so many places. Associated with the sun, it was venerated in the East, had a desert city named after it, and had its mythology launched into the western canon by the ancient Greeks, those same people with the tale of Icarus.  Composer Igor Stravinsky wrote The Firebird Suite, available here on CD, and available in many free downloadable mp3 and streamable versions through the library’s Freegal music collection.

Such has been the human dream since time immemorial. Nearly every culture in every place has imagined flying like birds, or has imagined birds with human personalities and cultural significance. Perhaps these notions inspired Leonardo’s birdlike Flying Machine, the Montgolfier brothers’ first balloon ascent, and what happened at Kitty Hawk on a certain day. Smithsonian Magazine has a few more thoughts on the subject.

Learn more about these myths and events at this resource list: Bird Week: Mythology and Birds.

~ Posted by Carl K. 

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