Birds have been a feature of our stories long back into mythology. They have often had a particular association with magic, either through their own innate powers and language, as symbols of wisdom and power, as familiars and messengers, or as special companions of the gods. Birds have appeared in all these roles time and again in fantasy fiction, demonstrating our deep connection with these creatures of the sky.
The Secret Language of Birds
In the myths of many cultures, the secret language of the birds is seen as a mystical language that imparts wisdom and power on those who can understand it. Often, it is gained through some magical method, and great advantages come from overhearing birds discussing others’ plans. In the Norse Poetic Edda and the Volsunga Saga, Sigurd learns the language of the birds when he burns himself while roasting the dragon Fafnir’s heart. Sigurd puts his burnt finger in his mouth and accidentally tastes dragon blood. He begins to understand the birdsong around him. This magical ability saves his life when he overhears the birds discussing Regin’s plans to kill him.
This is a recurring theme in much folklore, in which heroes and heroines might be granted the ability to understand the birds through magic, or even granted it by the king of the birds himself. Vital information will then be overheard or given, helping them in their quest or saving their life. In Greek mythology, too, the language of the birds is gained by magical or divine means, with the most famous examples being Aesop (of the Fables fame) and the blind prophet Teiresias, who was gifted the power by Athena, goddess of wisdom. Cassandra’s prophetic abilities, according to some accounts, were gained when a snake (sent by Apollo) licked her ear and she began to understand the birds. Solomon’s legendary wisdom was also said to have come from understanding this special language, a gift granted by God.
Other traditions claim that the language of birds is an angelic or adamic language, a pure form that was spoken in the Garden of Eden or at the beginning of time. It has great power and is divine in origin. Another name for this tongue is Enochian, an angelic language that has appeared in modern fantasy about angels. Look carefully, and you will even find a reference in the faux footnotes of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, where Susanna Clarke mentions a book titled “The Language of Birds.”
The idea of a lost, magical language from pre-history or even from the creation of the world is an idea that occurs regularly in fantasy fiction. Magic is often tied to language, whether it is an ancient language, special incantations needed to weave spells, or the power in a real name. From Earthsea to Discworld, words and language hold incredible power.
Messengers and Familiars
Tied to stories of the language of birds imparting wisdom is the idea that the future can be read in bird flight and song. This is a divination method that has been shared by many cultures; in ancient Rome it was an extremely important religious rite with its own dedicated priesthood and temples – the auguraculum, a roofless building in which the flight of birds was marked with stones. In the Odyssey, the repeated sight of an eagle flying with a dove in its talons is a message from the gods, predicting the return of Odysseus and his vengeance upon his enemies. In A Song of Ice and Fire series by George RR Martin, a white raven is sent out from Oldtown to herald the change of season.
Many cultures share the idea that birds helped establish their civilisation or their line of rulers, perhaps by guiding the people to their land. A giant eagle or hawk is said to have led the Magyar people to Hungary, and a golden eagle, according to Mongol beliefs, put the first Mongol emperor on his throne.
Birds appear commonly in fantasy as messengers, whether it be the owls of the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling, delivering letters and packages as a magical substitute for the postal service, or the ravens of A Song of Ice and Fire, who carry important messages between far off towns and cities. In mythology, birds are often seen as the messengers of the gods – Odin had his ravens, Apollo his white ravens, and the Queen Mother of the West had her Qingniao.
Owls are not just messengers in the Harry Potter world, but are also pets and companions, filling the traditional role of the magical animal familiar. In both folklore and fiction, witches’ familiars are most commonly found in the form of cats, whereas wizards tend to favour owls. When I think of owl familiars, the one that springs to mind instantly is Archimedes, Merlin’s companion from Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, which is itself, of course, a film based on TH White’s The Once and Future King. This connection between owls and wizards is most likely a reflection of the association of intelligence and bookish learning with wizards, a magic that is studied, rather than the mystical and more ambiguous power of witches, a magic that is innate or gifted (by the devil or by pagan gods, depending on sources and beliefs). Owls emphasise this idea of the focus of wizardly magic, as they have long been used as a symbol of wisdom and intelligence. Athena herself, goddess of wisdom, had an owl companion.
Archimedes and Merlin in Disney's The Sword in the Stone
Two of the most famous bird messengers and familiars in mythology are Hugin and Munin, the Norse god Odin’s companions. These ravens fly daily across the whole world, bringing back information to the god. They are often shown in art perched on either shoulder, and Odin is sometimes referred to as the ‘raven-god’. Hugin and Munin mean ‘thought’ and ‘mind’, so Odin’s ravens may be more than information carriers – they may also represent the journey of the soul, or of a magical, shamanistic ability of Odin’s to send a part of himself out into the world. Odin himself is a god of wisdom, magic, Shamanism and prophecy, once again highlighting the connection between birds, magic and the gods.
Hugin and Munin tend to make appearances, large or small, in any fantasy that bases itself on Norse mythology. They feature in the Marvel Comics universe as Odin’s helpers, and they can also be found in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, in which Odin (an aspect of the god, brought over to America with the colonists) is an important character. The intelligent ravens that feature in JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Carc and Roäc, leaders of the great ravens of the Lonely Mountain, perhaps also reflect the legacy of Hugin and Munin.
Odin and his ravens, Hugin and Munin
Corvids do not only feature in Norse mythology, they are popular in a whole range of stories both old and new. Corvids are birds of the crow family – ravens, crows, jackdaws, rooks, magpies, etc, and our fascination with them almost certainly stems from real observations of these birds in the wild. Corvids are the most intelligent of birds and are some of the cleverest of all animals. They have demonstrated tool-making abilities, problem solving skills (including quite complex puzzles), and have shown self-awareness in mirror tests. A carrion crow has been recorded carrying nuts to a road, letting cars drive over them to crack them, and then waiting until the red light before flying down to retrieve the nut. This is just one of many examples of the birds’ adaptive, resourceful and clever nature. It is no wonder that ravens and crows have long been associated with wisdom and magic.
In mythology and folklore, corvids hold a somewhat ambiguous position. Although several Germanic cultures revered the raven (placing these birds at the side of the Allfather of the gods, Odin), other peoples cast crows and ravens in a more sinister position. Because they eat carrion and will have been observed picking at corpses on a battlefield, they have been associated with death, war, and underworld deities. In Aesop’s fables, corvids appeared as intelligent enemies. In Greek mythology, however, ravens are associated with Apollo, god of prophecy, and were said to bring luck as well as carry messages for the god. According to myth, their feathers were once white but were turned black as a punishment for failing in their duties or for telling secrets. For the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, the raven is an important cultural figure. Raven was both a hero and trickster, in some accounts the Creator of the world, and he brought many gifts to humanity – light, the names of plants, etc.
The crow and the raven are therefore slightly sinister figures, associated with death and magic, but at the same time intelligent and important birds. They might cause havoc with their trickery, or they might benefit humankind. This idea is found in our fantasy stories too. Ravens and crows are more likely to find themselves the companions of ambiguous figures or outcasts, such as witches (Maleficent and her raven), or associated with strange happenings.
In A Song of Ice and Fire, it is a three eyed crow that visits Bran and starts him on his strange quest (and the name Bran itself means ‘raven’ in Gaelic). There are strong hints that it is leading him towards some kind of magical destiny. In this same series of books, we see ravens used as messengers again, and a sense of suspicion and foreboding hovering over their arrival – “dark wings, dark words.” The members of the Night Watch are also referred to as crows, linking to their all-black clothing but also emphasising their slightly ambiguous nature as society’s criminals and outcasts, standing as a force of good to protect against invaders.
In Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem The Raven, the raven represents the protagonist’s slide into madness. It is a creature of another world, bringing him thoughts of horror and death, and seeming to sit at the boundary of the real world and the imagined. In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, a wizard with a poor sense of humour named an intelligent talking raven ‘Quoth’, a reference to this poem. Quoth refuses to quote the raven in the poem by saying the ‘n word’ (nevermore), though he does still sit at the boundary between worlds as the Death of Rats’ companion and interpreter. He is represented as an intelligent bird that has a craving for eyeballs.
In Joseph D’Lacey’s Black Feathers, corvids are once again inscrutable creatures. They are shown as both pests and animals to respect. The ominous figure of the Crowman may be good or evil or neither; the reader is left wondering whether he will prove to be a satanic figure, drawing the world into an apocalypse, or a saviour figure for humanity. Then again, perhaps he is both, heralding the deaths that need to come before a new age. Corvids, as birds that are at once hated, feared, respected and admired, make the perfect symbol for this kind of story.
Power and Freedom – Birds as Symbols
Birds have been used time and again as symbols in our stories. We have already seen the wise owls, a slightly false association given that owls are not really that intelligent, and the clever raven – a more factual depiction – as symbols of intelligence and magic but also death and misfortune. These symbols do not always cross cultures; in some parts of the world the owl is considered to be malicious and evil, or a night demon, far from the wise and bumbling owl we may be used to in western fantasy. Another famous bird symbol is the white dove, portraying peace, an association that goes back to the biblical story of the Flood, but also further back into mythology and the idea that white represents goodness and purity. In ancient Greece, the dove was the bird of Aphrodite, and so symbolised love and fertility.
Particular birds of prey often hold associations with nobility, with the eagle reserved for royalty and emperors, and sometimes for conquering heroes. Next time you’re reading a historical-influenced fantasy, look out for every mention of an eagle standard or flag, eagle crests on helmets or emblems on armour, or eagles finding their way into the names of units and armies. This association of the eagle with power and victory is partly due to the fact that the eagle is a large and deadly predator, as well as a particularly beautiful and regal looking bird. However, this symbolism goes deeper. In medieval Europe when falconry was popular, there was a strict hierarchy of which birds a person was allowed to fly according to their position in society. Only the emperor could fly a golden eagle, the king a gyr falcoln, and so on, all the way down to the knave or servant, who was restricted to a kestrel. The eagle has also been linked to the sun god in mythologies around the world, and was a symbol of Jupiter, the king of the Roman gods.
Birds also offer a powerful symbol of freedom, either as the caged bird that longs to be released and pines and weakens in its captivity, or as the bird soaring free in the sky, seemingly free even of the laws that hold us to the ground. One of the strongest examples of this in modern fantasy is the Mockingjay from the Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, a bird that comes to mean freedom and rebellion.
In fantasy, it is common to see a magical figure transform themselves into a bird, perhaps to more easily gain some information or advantage, but just as likely to feel what it is like to experience avian freedom. In fact, the feeling is so addictive and joyful that these shapeshifting wizards and witches must be careful not to get carried away, or they will forever forget their human lives. This is a danger that both Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea and Granny Weatherwax in the Discworld series come very close to. In fact, in A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged uses a nickname to hide his real name (which holds power), and so is known to most as Sparrowhawk. This is a name he earns by calling and commanding a sparrowhawk, demonstrating a power over nature that he must be careful to keep in balance. Ged’s own adoption of this name may symbolise his power and his potential despite humble origins, his isolated nature, and his longing for more power and greater freedom.
Faulkes and Harry Potter in The Chamber of Secrets
In some cultures birds have also been seen as symbols of death and the journey of the soul, or even as carriers of the soul into the beyond. This connects to the bird’s delicate, flitting appearance as it flies, and its ability to leave the ground as the soul leaves the confines of the body. Combining the symbolism of both death and freedom is the Phoenix, a mythical bird that rises from the ashes of its death and is reborn. When the Phoenix appears in fantasy fiction, as in the Harry Potter series, for example, it is usually to impart a sense of hope, of the ability to beat the odds and carry on fighting.
Birds have been tied to our society and stories far back into the mists of legend, appearing as familiars and messengers, figures of magic and the divine, and powerful symbols with layers of meaning. They rarely play pivotal or glorious roles, but are there in the background of so many stories, a part of who we are and who we have been.
The three eyed crow from the Game of Thrones HBO series
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