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An illustration of a bird of paradise

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.

A painting of a bird of paradise


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.

An illustration of the anatomy of a bird of paradise


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.

Book cover with an illustration of a bird of paradise


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.



Images: 1) Public Domain 2) Public Domain 3) Public Domain 4) Internet Archive

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