When something is deemed ‘for the birds’ it is being deemed worthless. This post is about how that is not the case for the birds as symbols.
It seems that as humans evolved higher-level cognitive capacity, they also evolved a need to explain everything. This wasn’t about vanity I don’t think, but I suppose even in our earliest history there were know-it-alls and nerds. I think, and I’m certainly not an evolutionary biologist, that it was simply to address the ageless conventional wisdom of “what you don’t know can hurt you, maybe even kill you”.
Explaining the tangible physical world became easier when humans began using descriptive art with abstract codes (Code Hidden in Stone Age Art May Be the Root of Human Writing) and even easier with the use of abstract symbols as alphabets in written language. At least for the literate.
Explaining the intangible has never been easy, even if the abstract concept was possibly important to survival. One invention for solving this dilemma appears to have been relating art depicting the observed and physical to plausible, if not highly imaginative, explanations of intangible ideas. Sometimes going as far as laying out the actions to take to change the predicted ‘feared’ outcome – superstitions and ‘old wives tales’. For example, disease and death seemed to appear out the darkness and silently take the lives and souls of the unfortunate. A Barn Owl appears out the darkness and silently takes its prey. It followed then that seeing a Barn Owl is a bad sign. Best to nail an Owl to the door.
Emotions felt when seeing or hearing a bird, such as admiration, loathing, or fear, could be conveyed in a symbolic way as a sign about well-being. Animal physical traits and behaviors that were well known to the early humans, because this knowledge was critical to survival and\or could be revered or reviled, acted as symbolic bridges in explaining the ‘soft side of life’. A Bluebird was always colorful, often cheerfully singing, and constantly just looking happy with life. Why wouldn’t they be the Creator’s symbol of happiness?
Cuteness, colorfulness, being human-like, etc., could be said of many animals, but birds held a privileged position in our early ancestors use of nature as symbols. Birds were not only conspicuous with many human-like traits with which we could relate, they could fly! As to having human-like qualities, anthropomorphism was not a no-no in ancient times. Quite the opposite in fact. Birds could easily be believed in story telling roles in explanations of a variety of natural phenomenon. It was easy to see them and hear them in these roles because they were known characters in the natural world. Birds ‘talked’ to early humans. Native Americans have a rich heritage of this. One example: Why the Raven is Black
And, birds can fly! Flight really set birds apart as symbols. Flight itself was (is) a symbol for one of humans’ most basic desires – freedom. More than just mobility, birds are free to roam the three-dimensional world above us. The world we have reverently called ‘the heavens’. And, because of this closeness to these heavenly souls and deities and their vocal proficiency, birds could easily be seen as communicators and messengers of the knowledge of the mysteries of this supernatural world. In the lore of many cultures, just seeing or hearing a species could seal one’s earthly and heavenly fate, for good or bad.
Birds as symbols has a rich variation across cultures and times and the subject of numerous culture’s folklore. To recount them all is a text book exercise so here are just a few from the #BirdingFromHome page. If you know these birds it is very easy to see how the symbol was derived, without the need for scientific proof. Just being observant, like a Crow 🙂