Of Fallen Angels and Birds of Paradise
From their first arrival in Europe, birds of paradise were instantly mythical beings. Angels which flew without wings and with but the help of the wind, they fed on dew and never touched the ground.
Nearly abstract inhabitants of the air, birds have a supernatural power over people. Their symbolism, their archetype, and their unique capacity for flight, exert a force over us: before their illuminated presence, the subconscious inevitably awakens. Incarnations of the soul, of the elevated, birds have been of myth and legend, appearing as creators, messengers, deities and, sometimes, as angels without wings.
In 1522, the feathered skins of a species of birds never seen in Europe reached the court of Charles V in Spain. “Birds of paradise,” (or what remained of them), they’d been brought from the East Indies alongside spices and other exotic wonders. They were carried on the last remaining ship of the fleet which, in 1519, had circumnavigated the globe under the command of Ferdinand Magellan. Antonio Pigafetta, the ship’s chronicler, described the five birds which arrived in Spain:
These birds are as large as thrushes; they have small heads, long beaks, legs slender like a writing pen, and a span in length; they have no wings, but instead of them long feathers of different colours, like plumes… they never fly, except when the wind blows. They told us that these birds come from the terrestrial Paradise, and they call them ‘bolon dinata’, that is, “divine birds.”
During the 16th- and 17th-centuries, only the remains of the Asian birds arrived in Europe, never live specimens. The inhabitants of New Guinea used them as accessories during dances and tribal ceremonies, such that birds appeared shrunken, deformed and without wings or legs. Their insides were removed and their skins were smoked to give them a dramatic appearance. Thus their huge beaks and long feathers seemed to have sizes disproportionate to the rest of their bodies. Their strange appearance was perhaps one reason for the birth of their legend.
For their spectacular beauty, the feathers of the birds were traded in Asia as expensive goods for thousands of years before Europeans arrived in the 15th-century seeking coveted spices like cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Together with the mutilated bodies and their dazzling plumages, Europe also received their myths. Of many, one told the story of a beautiful species of birds which lived entirely in the air and never touched the ground. They were believed to have come from Paradise and thus referred to as “birds of God”.
When studying the strange birds, naturalists of the time came to strange, charming conclusions. Because the birds lacked internal organs, they were assumed to have fed only on air and dew. It was also believed that males had cavities in their back where the females laid and incubated their eggs. Many more speculations were made on their breeding methods and some brave proposals, made later, suggested that the birds fed on insects. Now they were called Manucodiata, from the Malay “Mamuco diuata,” again meaning, “birds of God.”
With the passage of time, the bodies of birds of paradise became more abundant in Europe, often imported by both Spanish and Portuguese merchants who traveled to the East. Their iridescent plumages ended up, nearly always, in the collections and cabinets of curiosities of the noble and wealthy, and where only they could see them. For ordinary people, they existed exclusively in the descriptions and narrations of others who’d seen them. As rare objects, they also appeared in books of heraldry and natural philosophy as angelic beings which floated through the air as a symbol of spiritual ascension. They eventually came to be thought of as related to the Phoenix. Such stories derived from the many legends then circulating in Europe and maintaining that the East was an exotic paradise, abundant in riches and wonders.
Over time, naturalists and scholars gained access to specimens the legs of which had not been removed. This was the beginning of the end for the legend of the birds of paradise, as they, little by little, became more earthly. Despite all this, their images survived, and their presence in paintings, religious texts, and allegories only proved what the animals were really made of: the notions of wonder and spirituality within the people who’d first conceived of them. As powerful as their songs, their angelic impossibility survives the birds born within the imagination of another era.
When ancient rituals became religion
The emergence of religions irreversibly changed the history of humanity. It’s therefore essential to ask when and how did ancient peoples’ rituals become organized systems of thought, each with their
Seven ancient maps of the Americas
A map is not the territory. —Alfred Korzybski Maps are never merely maps. They’re human projections, metaphors in which we find both the geographical and the imaginary. The cases of ghost islands
An artist crochets a perfect skeleton and internal organs
Shanell Papp is a skilled textile and crochet artist. She spent four long months crocheting a life-size skeleton in wool. She then filled it in with the organs of the human body in an act as patient
A musical tribute to maps
A sequence of sounds, rhythms, melodies and silences: music is a most primitive art, the most essential, and the most powerful of all languages. Its capacity is not limited to the (hardly trivial)
The enchantment of 17th-century optics
The sense of sight is perhaps one the imagination’s most prolific masters. That is why humankind has been fascinated and bewitched by optics and their possibilities for centuries. Like the heart, the
Would you found your own micro-nation? These eccentric examples show how easy it can be
Founding a country is, in some ways, a simple task. It is enough to manifest its existence and the motives for creating a new political entity. At least that is what has been demonstrated by the
Wondrous crossings: the galaxy caves of New Zealand
Often, the most extraordinary phenomena are “jealous of themselves” ––and they happen where the human eye cannot enjoy them. However, they can be discovered, and when we do find them we experience a
Think you have strange reading habits? Wait until you've seen how Mcluhan reads
We often forget or neglect to think about the infinite circumstances that are condensed in the acts that we consider habitual. Using a fork to eat, for example, or walking down the street and being
The sky is calling us, a love letter to the cosmos (video)
We once dreamt of open sails and Open seas We once dreamt of new frontiers and New lands Are we still a brave people? We must not forget that the very stars we see nowadays are the same stars and
The sister you always wanted (but made into a crystal chandelier)
Lucas Maassen always wanted to have a sister. And after 36 years he finally procured one, except, as strange as it may sound, in the shape of a chandelier. Maassen, a Dutch designer, asked the