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Why Birds Can Tap On Our Subconscious And Awaken It


There is a fascinating relation between birds, spirits, divine wisdom and prophecies.

The peculiar whiteness of seagulls enlivened an ancient superstition that said they were the spirits of lost sailors. For the Aztecs, hummingbirds were the souls of dead warriors. An owl’s apparition, that avis turpissima, is a prophecy to some, or, to others, an omen of imminent death. Birds reside in the heart of human experience. When we see birds, they gently tap on our unconscious and awaken it.

There is a fascinating relation between birds, spirits, divine wisdom and prophecies, and they are so symbolically related to us that we often forget. Every bird carries a specific symbolical charge as established by traditions —as we’ll see later— but every bird also has a unique and subjective symbol, that depends on the moment we see it. If we regard them as archetypal signifiers, birds are particularly appropriate for self-enlightenment.

At times, for example, in the midst of a tribulation we see a bird and we immediately bestow it with agency over our thoughts. Its presence may mean an epiphany, an omen, tranquility. If one is meditating about the past and a bird of paradise spreads its wings in the middle of the sky, we may perhaps understand something there, in that moment, and spread our wings with it. Or if, on the other hand, we miss someone who has passed away and a crow perches outside our window (as it happens to Poe’s character), this crow will be a messenger of death or the very spirit of our beloved.

The synchronicities between nature and thought awaken an esoteric element in the air. And precisely these sinister associations are the most astounding aspect of our relationship with birds. The strange recognition of the familiar in the Other says more about the individual who perceives “that other” than of the object (in this case the bird) that is perceived. But birds have certain characteristics that suggest they know much more than they let on to us.


Birds as harbingers of death

Birds’ supposed power of portent extends to all cultures. Blackbirds in particular are often victims of guilt by association, as Christopher Moreman points out in his fascinating essay on the relationship between birds and the spirits of the dead. In Wales, for example, there is a saying that a crow flying over a house signals the death of somebody inside. In England, people believe that crows make similar predictions if they land on a house or on a garden fence. A Danish legend maintains that the appearance of a crow or grackle in a town is a portent of the death of the local priest. But numerous portents of death are related to the owl, the king of nocturnal birds, which was described by the ancient Greeks as “the most evil bird of all, the prophet of doom.”

Ovid called the owl “a terrible harbinger for mortals.” In China it is said that the owl hoots that a tomb will soon be needed. In southern India one can predict the future by counting the hoots of an owl: one hoot means death and eight means sudden death, although other numbers are more auspicious. Among some Apaches, owls are imminent ghosts. In Mexico, the tecolote (from the Náhuatl tecolotl) carries the same name as a witch doctor or a nahual and appears at the same time of day (or night). In Jewish folklore, the owl is often linked to Lilith, the legendary female demon that is blamed for the death of infants and is presumed a precursor to the vampire.

Birds, however, are also esoteric psychopompos that steal or transport the souls of the dead to the other side. The Romans, in apotheosis, released an eagle at the death of an emperor so that it could take its soul to the heights. Some Native Americans describe vultures as birds that carry the dead to the spirit world. And we can’t leave out Jesus (Matthew 3:16), who descended from the sky as God in the form of a dove.

Many researchers have explained the relationship between birds and death or between birds and transmigration in naturalist terms. “The owl’s natural characteristics, its sudden assault on its victims, its sinister hoot, its preference for darkness and the scent of carrion in its nest have made it the most fearsome of the gods of death,” Moreman says. His theory is that their wings, their song (sometimes terrifyingly resembling the human voice, such as the crow’s caw), their capacity to migrate and to fly high make them the perfect symbol of otherness: that which is obscure to humans. But that description is not enough.

Perhaps the Jungian archetype is clearer. When one comes across a common symbol that is recognizable across many cultural traditions, such as the relationship between birds and death, it creates a collective archetype. That does not mean that the bird in itself is an archetype, but that something about birds manifests that archetype. “It is not as if there is an instinctual bird-image ingrained in the human psyche, but rather that particular instinctual unconscious contents are evoked most clearly by characteristics particular to birds,” Moreman says. In other words, it is not that we project meaning onto birds, but we acknowledge the animal ‘voice’ – what it means – at a subconscious level.

Birds have access to locations and knowledge that it is difficult if not impossible for humans to access, such as the mystery of death. And the uncertainty of death is the most profound of all for humanity. Birds can know the unknowable and their flight allows them to access unknown worlds. Their knowledge of those worlds can make us think that they can carry messages or spirits to those places, or bring them back from those places.

In their high flight and ability to reach places not accessible to us, birds are the perfect messengers, either between humans and the gods or between the conscious and unconscious. “Birds are associated with death not because some are black, eat carrion, or have nocturnal habits, but because they embody the fullness of life,” Moreman points out.

Birds are, to our eyes, so alive and full of movement that they can suggest indulgence. By not understanding their language – their ever-open eyes, their song and geometric flight – makes us associate them with something that is always closed to us: death, the world behind the veil, the anticipation of events. We convert them into a language of sorcery that we read all our lives.


Image from Histoire Naturelle des Oiseaux de Paradis et des Rolliers, suivie de celle des Toucans et des Barbus, by François Levaillant and Jacques Barraband

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