Every morning as your author sips his life-giving coffee and pursues the internet news sites for the latest analysis of who hates whom, he is accompanied by a feeder full of birds. Yours truly has a monumental bird feeder hanging from the back porch to feed an army of the little winged varmints, and a special smaller one full of sugar water for the humming birds. There is a quiet morning joy in watching them.
Almost certainly because birds fly in the skies, where traditionally the gods reside, they have come to be sacred in many different religions. When Noah’s ark landed on Mount Ararat, apparently he had no windows and so to see if dry land appeared, he released a raven from the ark to have it search for vegetation but it came back with nothing, and then a week later released a dove, and a week later the dove went again and brought back an olive twig. When the dove refused to return, Noah knew the waters had receded. (Genesis 8)
Later on in the Hebrew Bible, ravens brought the prophet Elijah bread and meat, morning and evening, to eat when he was hiding from the wrath of evil Queen Jezebel and King Ahab. This is rather odd, given that ravens were scavengers and therefore ritually unclean, according to Mosaic law.
The Torah lists 24 unclean birds, including the “griffon vulture, the bearded vulture, the black vulture, the kite, the various species of falcons, the various species of crows, the eagle owl, the kestrel, the long-eared owl, the various species of hawks, the little owl, the cormorant, the screech owl, the barn owl, the horned owl, the osprey, the stork, the various species of herons, the hoopoe, and the bat.” (Leviticus 11:13-19) Rabbinic authorities have concluded that this list suggests that all, or at least some other birds, can be eaten, and most commonly, chicken, quail, pigeons, duck and doves are approved if prepared properly.
The pagan nations of course saw birds, or at least some of them, as sacred. The eagle was sacred to the Greek god Zeus and his Roman counterpart, Jupiter. The Roman god’s eagle was a deeply Roman symbol and silver images of it were used to lead troops into battle. Eagles were regarded as the king of birds of the Romans and they stamped the eagle in many places. Almost certainly, the Roman eagle is the cultural ancestor of the American eagle on that quarter in your pocket. The owl of Athena was a symbol of her role as the goddess of wisdom, and the city of Athens proudly put owls on their coins. In Norse mythology, the chief god Odin had a pair of sacred ravens, named Huginn and Muninn, meaning “thought” and “memory,” who kept him constantly advised on the goings on of Earth.
Perhaps one of the earliest uses of birds in religious matters is of course the Egyptians, for whom birds were almost universally sacred. A brief perusal of Gardiner’s magisterial volume, “Egyptian Grammar,” shows hundreds of different birds used in the sacred hieroglyphs. The novice Egyptologist must puzzle their way through tiny images of storks, doves, pelicans, various sparrows and hawks, each representing a sound. The greatest of the birds for the Egyptians was the falcon, the symbol of the god Horus, the mythological first king of Egypt. The Horus bird appears alongside many statues of pharaohs to advise the king. The eagle was also sacred to the king and a representative of the protecting goddess Nekhbet. Even today in Islamic Egypt, the national flag depicts the Eagle of Saladin as a symbol of Arab nationalism, strength and determination.
The earliest avian inscriptions in Egypt go back at least to the period of the unification of the kingdom by Narmer in 3200 B.C. In lower, or northern Egypt, there is an ancient burial site at a sacred city called Abydos whose ruins go back before the unification and there the first kings of Egypt were buried. One of these gentlemen was a man named Hor Aha who was probably the son of Narmer and therefore the second king of Egypt. On his grave there is a ritualized inscription called a serekh, which is a horizontal marker containing the Horus bird, mounted on a picture of some grand column or building. These serekhs measured about 40-by-150 centimeters and were used in the pre-dynastic Gerzeh culture on tombs to denote great men, but in the age after Narmer they came to be a symbol of kingship. In the years which followed, the kings used up to five ritual names to identify themselves, one of which was called the Horus Name. The association of the king with the divine Horus falcon became well established at this very early period.
I have looked upon a great many stone Horus birds. Their faces are formal, rigid and unforgiving, like William Butler Yeats description of the beast of the second coming, whose face is “A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun.” These are not like biblical birds who often bring help and good news or my wee friends on the back patio. Across 5,000 years their Horus bird faces still say, “obey the king and do not make me angry.”