Birds in the Celtic World
The ancient Celts had their own tradition of bird divination based on both general bird behaviour, and the particular qualities of specific species. Being an oral tradition little has survived, but later collections of stories and myths gives an idea of their relationship to birds. The belief in the otherworldliness of birds can be seen in the myths and folk tales. Here birds speak a special language, giving advice and warnings to those humans who by accident or design are able to understand them. Another feature is the ability of wise men or women, seers, gods and druids to transform people into birds. In other myths, gods communicate with humans by becoming birds themselves or by sending birds to act as messengers.
The Book of Lismore, a fifteenth century Irish manuscript, preserves a mythic tale about a blind Druid called Mog Ruith, who dons a headdress of brindled feathers in order to do battle against his druid enemies. In Cormac’s ninth century glossary, there are references to Irish bards wearing feather cloaks ‘it is of skins of birds white and many-coloured that the poet’s toga is made from the girdle downwards and of mallard’s necks and crests from the girdle upwards to the neck.’ In another medieval work, Og Ohain, there are instructions for observing the movement of wrens in order to work divination
The predominant sacred birds of the Celts were the waterfowl; – Julius Caesar remarked that the Britons considered the flesh of geese to be taboo, although whether this was a tribal or cultural thing is unknown. Wildfowl haunted the sea, lake and river shore, liminal places between the worlds. They could move on, beneath and above the water. They were also associated with revival and regeneration, and with death and decay, appearing as they did in the spring, the season of rebirth and renewal and disappearing in the autumn when the foliage began to die back. They appeared to be connected to the solar gods, engravings on goods from the La Tene period show geese or swans pulling a ship carrying the sun. Birds that appeared as the days were lengthening and flew off when they shortened were a logical choice as helpers for the gods of light.
In the Celtic world these were the migrant Berwick and Whooper swans, not the Mute swans which were introduced by the Romans. Bards were said to wear swan feather cloaks as a symbol of their status. They appear in several Celtic myths, the Children of Lir, were transformed into swans by their jealous step mother – who struck them with her druid wand. They retained their human powers of speech and reasoning and sang to men on the lakeshore. Another tale tells how Oenghus transforms himself into a swan so that he can be with his love Caer Ibormeith, who was herself a swan maiden.
Cranes were common in prehistoric Britain but became extinct by 1600 due to the drainage of the wetlands and an increase in hunting. They are large, noisy, communal birds which migrate from northern Europe through France to Spain. They have an eight foot wingspan which is the largest of any bird in the UK, greater even than that of the biggest raptor. They’re famous for their spectacular courtship dance which involves raising their feet and lifting and dropping their wings. This dance has been imitated by man in various cultures across the globe. Theseus performed a crane dance when he returned safely from Crete. John Clare described a crane dance which had survived into the seventeenth century in England as a folk dance, at a harvest celebration. Manannan Mac Lir had a bag made from crane skin in which he kept his great treasures. It was said to be empty during the ebb tide but full during the flow. Cranes in flight were the inspiration for the ogham alphabet, the letters being based on the position of their legs during flight. As the secret of ogham was known only to the Druids, they were said to possess ‘crane knowledge.’ Sticks inscribed with the ogham letters were used a system of divination.
Geese are territorial and defend their areas vigorously and noisily. This may have led to them being adopted as a symbol of warfare. Depictions of geese have been found in the temples of the Celtic gods of war and also in the graves of warriors. Some pictures of Epona show her riding on a goose rather than her usual horse, and it is thought that this may depict Epona in her role as a goddess of war.
In the tale of Math Son of Mathonwy, Llew was transformed into a wounded eagle, when his wife Bloedwedd’s lover spears him in an attempt to kill him Heroic figures were often transformed into eagles which were emblems of nobility and courage. The eagle was recognized as a messenger of the gods, both because it was a high flying bird, but also because of it size and fierce nature. For the same reasons it became associated with kingship. It was said that one spotted circling high before a battle meant victory, but if it swooped to earth it meant defeat. It was associated with the sun, as it was seen to fly higher than all other birds, and it was said that it could look into the sun’s rays without being blinded. It is associated with swiftness and keen sight. In Wales, it was said that a pair of eagles on Snowden raised whirlwinds by flapping their wings
As a punishment for attempting to kill Llew, Bloedwedd was transformed into an owl and condemned to fly crying in the night forever. The owl appears to have been venerated in the past as a sacred to the goddess of death and rebirth – in ancient times it was one of the few birds whose image was painted and carved into the rocks and there is some use of owl imagery in early Celtic art. However, later this respect seemed to dissolve into legend and superstition. In welsh the owl was called the aderyn y corff or corpse bird and in Scots gaelic it was known as the callieach or hag.
Crow and Raven
Black carrion birds such as crows and ravens were associated with the Irish Goddess Macha and the Morrigan, who could transform herself into a crow, as she did after Cu Chulains death. They were familiar sights scavenging on corpses and became associated with prophecy, death, and disaster. Ravens are also associated with the god Bran, whose name means Raven Wren The wren’s bird song was used for divination. In Irish it was called Drui-en – the Druid’s bird, and in welsh Dryw, which means both wren and druid. It was associated with the oak and seen as a representation of the oak king, who was killed at winter and replaced by the robin and holly. It is believed that an echo of this sacrifice was the Wren Hunt on St Stephens Day where the previously protected bird was hunted and killed.
The goddess Rhiannon had three blackbirds, which sat and sang in the world tree. Their singing lulled listeners to sleep, and enabled them to travel to the Otherworld to learn mystic secrets. They were said to sing sweetly enough to heal the sick and to make the dead rise from their grave. The blackbird is the first bird to sing at the start of day, some time before sunrise and is the last to finish at night, singing well into the darkness. It is also one of the few birds that sings all year round. It is a bird that the Celts would have recognized as belonging to a time of transience, a time out of time, singing alone as it does in the dawn and dusk
Other birds are mentioned in the Celtic myths; Branwen, sister of Bran, teaches a starling to speak and sends it as a messenger to her brother, when she is mistreated by her husband. In the tale of Taliesin, the boy Gwion and Cerridwen transform themselves into birds during their chase. It is as a black hen that Cerridwen ingests Gwion, who has turned into a grain. The Hawk of Achill, the oldest creature in the world, teaches Fintan the poet, who has the secret of bird speech, the history of mankind.