Manabu Waida, "Birds." In: The Encyclopaedia of Religion, Second Edition, vol. 2. New York, 1987, pp. 947 -949..


 BIRDS are primarily the epiphanies of the gods and spirits, but they also appear as messengers of the heavenly divine beings. They announce new situations in advance and serve as guides. Moreover, birds symbolize man’s soul or spirit as it is released from the body in ecstasy or in death; the bird is a symbol of absolute freedom and transcendence of the soul from the body, of the spiritual from the earthly. Hence, a bird is often associated with divinity, immortality, power, victory, and royalty.

   Birds and bird-masked figures are clearly attested as early as the Palaeolithic period. In the cave painting at Lascaux in the Dordogne, dating from approximately 15,000 BCE, a bird-masked person is depicted as falling backward before a bison confronting him. At his feet lies his spear-thrower, and the spear that he has discharged has pierced the bison’s body. Quite close to them is a bird perched on a pole. Most scholars interpret this scene as depicting a hunting tragedy: wearing a bird mask, the hunter has been killed by the bison. The mask may have been used as a device to enable the hunter to approach his prey without being noticed. The bird on a pole may represent the soul of the dead man or the totem and mythical ancestor of the tribe to which he belongs. For other scholars, the scene presents the shamanic trance. The man wearing a bird mask is a shaman; he lies unconscious while his soul has departed for the ecstatic journey to the world beyond. A companion on this spiritual journey is his helping spirit, here symbolized by the bird on a pole. The bison is possibly a sacrificial animal.

   Although it is still uncertain whether shamanism originated in the Palaeolithic period, birds undoubtedly occupy a very important place in the spiritual world of hunters generally and of northern Eurasia in particular, where shamanism has been a dominant magico-religious force. In fact, the shaman of Inner Asia and Siberia receives help from the spirits of wild animals and birds when undertaking an ecstatic journey. Bird spirits (especially those of geese, eagles, owls, and crows) descend from heaven and enter the shaman’s body to inspire him as he beats his drum, wearing the shamanic costume of the bird type. Otherwise, they move into his drum or sit on his shamanic costume. This is precisely when shamanic ecstasy occurs; the shaman is transformed into a spiritual being, a bird in his inner experience. He moves, sings, and flies like a bird; his soul leaves the body and rises toward the heavens, accompanied by bird spirits. This motif of the ascending bird spirit has been revalorized by Daoism on a new spiritual plane: in the Zhuangzi, dating from the third century BCE, for example, a huge bird named Peng appears as the symbol of the soaring spirit that enjoys absolute freedom and is emancipated from mundane values and concerns. When a shaman dies among the Yakuts, the Tunguz, and the Dolgans, it is customary to erect on his tomb poles or sticks with a wooden bird at each tip. The bird symbolizes the soul of the departed shaman.

   Birds appear in the myths of creation that centre on the theme of the cosmogonic dive or the earth diver. In the beginning, when only the waters exist, aquatic birds (ducks, swans, geese, or swallows) dive to the bottom of the primeval ocean to fetch a particle of soil. Birds dive sometimes by God’s order and sometimes by their own initiative, but in some variants God transforms himself into a bird and dives. This motif of the diving bird, common among such Altaic peoples as the Buriats and the Yakuts, is also found among the Russians and such Uralic peoples as the Samoyeds, the Mansi, the Yenisei, and the Mari. Earth divers also appear in a certain number of Indian cosmogonic myths of North America. The result of the courageous dive is always the same: a small particle of soil that has been brought up grows miraculously until it becomes the world as it is today. In Finnish and Estonian cosmogonic myths, God flies down as a bird onto the primeval ocean and lays on it the cosmic eggs from which the world emerges. This motif is also found in Indonesia and Polynesia.

   Myths of kingship in northern Eurasia are often imbued with the symbolism of birds. According to the Mongolians, a golden-winged eagle gave them the yasa, or basic rules of life on the steppes, and helped them to establish the foundation of the Mongol empire by installing Chinggis Khan on the royal throne. Japanese myths tell how a crow (or raven) and a golden kite flew down as messengers of the heavenly gods and served Jimmu, the first mythical emperor of Japan, as guides in his march through the mountains to Yamato, where he established his imperial dynasty. The Hungarians have the tradition that the Magyars were guided by a giant turul (falcon, eagle, or hawk) into the land where Árpád founded the Hungarian nation. The turul is known as the mythical ancestor of the Árpáds.

   These myths of creation and kingship reveal the prominent role played by birds in the formation of the cosmic order. As an epiphany of a god, demiurge, or mythical ancestor, a bird appears in the beginning of the world, and its appearance serves as an announcement of the creation of the universe, of the alteration of the cosmic structure, or of the founding of a people, a dynasty, or a nation. The eagle in Siberia, as well as the raven and thunderbird in North America, is especially invested with the features of the culture hero.

   Often described as the creator of the world, the bird is the Divine being who familiarizes the people with knowledge and techniques, endows them with important cultural inventions, and presents them with the rules of life and social institutions. In the ancient Near East and the Greco-Mediterranean world, birds are charged with a complex of symbolic meanings. Here, as elsewhere, the bird is essentially an epiphany of deity. In the Near East the dove usually symbolizes the goddess of fertility by whatever name she is known, and in Greece it is especially an epiphany of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. The eagle is a manifestation of the solar deity, as is clearly illustrated by the winged sun disks of Mesopotamia and later of Persia. The eagle is often represented as engaged in fighting with the snake or dragon. This archaic motif, attested in the Near East, India, and the southern Pacific, shows the tension that exists between the celestial solar principle and that of the maternal chthonic forces, but it also reveals man’s inextinguishable aspiration for universal oneness or wholeness, which can be achieved by the cooperation and synthesis of conflicting powers.

   The bird, and particularly the dove, often symbolizes love as an attribute of the goddess of fertility. In the cults of Dumuzi and Adonis, the goddess appears as a mother who laments over her son’s captivity in the underworld and descends there to rescue him, to raise him from the dead. It is possible that the dove’s moaning contributed to making it the special symbol of the goddess of love in the ancient Near East. In Greece the dove is an epiphany of divinity, but divinity in its amorous aspect, as can be seen from the dove’s association with Aphrodite. In the Greco-Mediterranean world the dove has never lost this erotic connotation.

   The eagle, the king of birds, is inseparably associated with royalty as well as with the solar deity. Indeed, royalty has never severed its symbolic ties with the sun and the eagle. In the Near East certain coins depict Hellenistic kings wearing a tiara with a pair of eagles on it facing the sun between them. In utilizing these symbols, the kings declare that they are divine by nature or deified. The divinity of the Roman emperor is expressed through the symbolism of Sol Invictus (“the invincible sun”) and the eagle.

   More generally, birds in the ancient Near East also signify the immortal souls of the dead. This celebrated image seems to have survived in Islam, where it is believed that the souls of the dead will remain as birds until the Day of Judgment. In Greece, images of the dove on graves may symbolize the soul of the departed, the divinity coming to help the departed, or the soul now in divine form. In Syria, the eagle depicted on tombs is the psychopomp, who leads the soul of the deceased to heaven. On Egyptian tombs the soul of the dead is represented as an androcephalic bird. However, soul birds (hawks, ducks, or geese) in Egypt have more than one function, usually in connection with the mummy. Certainly they are immortal souls, but they also symbolize divine presence and protection; birds bring all sorts of nourishment to the corpse to revive it. Thus in Egypt as elsewhere, the bird is both the soul of the departed and the divinity, regardless of what bird is depicted. The peacock, which in the Greco-Roman world may have symbolized man’s hope for immortality, is of Indian origin. In Buddhism not only the peacock but also the owl and many other birds appear as epiphanies of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, preaching the message of enlightenment and compassion. The bodhisattva Mayurasana, for example, is usually portrayed riding on a peacock. In Judaism the dove and the eagle, the two most important birds, seem to have kept much the same symbolic values intact although they have been given specific Jewish colourings. The dove depicted on Jewish tombstones, in the wall paintings of Jewish catacombs, and on the ceilings of synagogues signifies Israel the beloved of God, the individual Israelite, or the salvation and immortality given to the faithful by God. In rabbinic tradition, too, the dove symbolizes not only the soul departing at death, but especially Israel the beloved. Moreover, the dove serves as the psychopomp. The eagle is equally multivalent; it is an epiphany of God of the power of God, but it is symbolic also of man’s hope for eternal life and immortality.

   The Christian symbolism of the dove and the eagle has also undergone a process of revalorization. The dove signifies the Holy Spirit in the baptism of Jesus, but is also becomes the erotic and impregnating force in the Annunciation. The motif of soul birds is well attested in early Christian literature and iconography. The soul becomes a dove at baptism; it identifies thereby with the Holy Spirit, the dove of Jesus’ baptism. As a dove, the soul of the departed becomes immortal, soaring up to heaven at death, especially at martyrdom.

   The eagle as a Christian symbol is bound up with a complex of ideas and images. For early Christians the eagle was symbolic of John the Evangelist because at the beginning of his gospel it is implied that John has risen to the heights of the genealogy of the Logos. But the eagle also symbolizes Jesus Christ himself, and it is believed that as an eagle Christ has accompanied John on his flight in quest of visions. Moreover, the eagle represents the Logos itself, just as in Judaism it signifies God or his power. Finally, the eagle depicted on Christian sarcophagi is inseparably associated with the hope for eternal life, light, and resurrection; it serves as the escort of the souls of departed Christians into immortal life with God.

   In Islamic literature and folklore, the symbolism of birds abounds. Farıd al-Dın ‘Attar’s famous epic Mantiq al-tayr (Conversation of the birds) uses the imagery of birds as human souls that journey through the seven valleys and, at the end of the road, discover their identity with the Simurgh, the divine bird that “has a name but no body,” a perfectly spiritual being. The Turkish saying “Can ku¸su uçtu” (“His soul bird has flown away”), uttered when someone dies, expresses the same concept. And throughout Persian and Persianate poetry and literature, one finds repeatedly the image of the nightingale (bulbul) in love with the radiant rose (gul), representing the soul longing for divine beauty.

   Birds are not yet deprived of symbolic meanings. Dreams of flying birds still haunt us. In his masterpiece Demian, Hermann Hesse has given new life to bird symbolism when he speaks of the “bird struggling out of the egg.” Modern man’s aspiration for freedom and transcendence has also been admirably expressed by the sculptor Constantin Brancusi through images of birds.

 SEE ALSO Cocks; Eagles and Hawks; Owls; Swans.


 The supreme importance of ornithomorphic symbolism and shamanism in the religious life of Paleolithic hunters has been stressed by Horst Kirchner in his article “Ein archäologischer

Beitrag zur Urgeschichte des Schamanismus,” Anthropos 47 (1952): 244–286. On the shaman’s ecstasy and his transformation into a bird, there is much useful material in Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (New York, 1964). The bird type of the shamanic costume is illustrated in two works by Uno Harva (formerly Holmberg): The Mythology of All Races, vol. 4, Finno-Ugric, Siberian (Boston, 1927), and Die religiosen Vorstellungen der altaischen

Volker (Helsinki, 1938). On the cosmogonic myths of the earth-diver type in which birds play a prominent role, see Mircea Eliade’s “The Devil and God,” in his Zalmoxis, the Vanishing God: Comparative Studies in the Religions and Folklore of Dacia and Eastern Europe (Chicago, 1972), pp. 76–130. On birds and kingship in Inner Asia and North Asia, see my article “Birds in the Mythology of Sacred Kingship,” East and West, n.s. 28 (1978): 283–289. The symbolism of birds in Judaism has been admirably studied by Erwin R. Goodenough in Pagan Symbols in Judaism (New York, 1958), volume 8 of his Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period. The best single book by a folklorist on folk beliefs and customs concerning birds is Edward A. Armstrong’s The Folklore of Birds: An Enquiry into the Origin and Distribution of Some Magico-Religious Traditions, 2d ed., rev. & enl. (New York, 1970).

 New Sources

 Estela Núñez, Carmen. “Asai, a Mythic Personage of the Ayoreo.” Latin American Indian Literatures 5 (Fall 1981): 64–67.

 Luxton, Richard N. “Language of the Birds: Tales, Texts and Poems of the Interspecies Communication.” Latin American Indian Literatures Journal 3, no. 1 (Spring 1987): 61–62.

 Seligmann, Linda J. “The Chicken in Andean History and Myth: The Quechua Concept of Wallpa.” Ethnohistory 34 (Spring 1987): 139–170.

 Waida, Manabu. “Problems of Central Asian and Siberian Shamanism.” Numen 30 (December 1983): 215–239.