Birds of Pray

This Week’s Prompt: 120. Talking bird of great longevity—tells secret long afterward.

The Resulting Story: Bird of Old Feather

Birds have come up a few times in our work, most notably here. But we certainly didn’t explore this in it’s entirety—there are still many more stories of the nature of birds, especially long lived and speaking ones.

A common motif found in stories of birds in the Balkans is the nightingale, who’s song completes a mosque. The first example is the story of the Nightingale Empress. The Nightingale Empress is sought after by a king to finish his majestic mosque, sending forth his three sons to find it. Two of the sons are common heroic types, but one is bookish and well read. They come to a path with three routes, two of which people have returned from and one which none have returned from. The heroic brothers take the routes men have returned from—and they in time gave up and took on trades, before heading back.

A common nightingale. I don’t know what an imperial nightingale looks like.

The bookish brother, however, was scholarly and wise in the ways of the world. He went down the path none came back from, and meet a number of monsters. He met a wild woman and gave her a comb so that she wouldn’t have matted hair, getting guidance further. He met a Lynx and his wife, and by teaching the wife how to make bread without burning her paws he escaped her husbands hunger. He was directed to a lion and lioness, both blind, to learn of where to go. The lynx told him to pretend to be their child, accept their caresses and comb the lion’s hair. And so he did, and went further down until three mysterious birds assaulted him. Fending them off, he came to a home where a old woman warned him her three man-eating daughters were returning. So he hid, and found the birds  had become daughters. They agree to take him further, so long as he serves them each for a month.

And so at last he is taken to the place where the Empress Nightingale is: the palace of the vila queen. The palace was guarded by five hundred men, a wolf, a lynx, and a lion.  Most of these protections, however, are bypassed by the aid of the eagle sisters. At last he returns to his brothers…who on the road back attempt to kill him by abandoning him in a well. The eldest then comes home, and claims to have found the bird.

But it won’t sing.

In time, the vila queen arrives however. She wants to know where the bird was found and, when the eldest claims it was in a cypress tree, she is infuriated. She insults him so badly that his subjects turn on him and beat him with sticks. The middle son reveals the truth of the matter, and the youngest bookish brother is rescued from death. And so the Nightingale Empress sings, and the bookish brother marries the vila queen and is named heir.

Then there is a tale from Serbia, about a humble bird catcher who produces a similar nightingale. While he was out catching birds, he caught an old crow—the crow promised to aid him in exchange for its life. The bird catcher, having no use for an old crow, agreed. He tricked other birds into being caught by the bird catcher, drawing crowds over time and bringing attention. The next day, the emperor asked that the bird catcher bring him three nightingales to complete his mosque, on pain of his life. The crow guided the bird catcher—and sure enough they were lured into cages.

Crow

Then the emperor asked for the mistresses of these birds, and the crow again advised him on how to lure her out. Captured, the empress of nightingales becomes the emperor’s bride. She is bitter about her capture, however.  She attempts to have the bird catcher killed—first she sends him to find the broken piece of her ring, which the crow finds using copious oil. Next, she skips right to the chase. She will not formally marry the emperor until the bird catcher has died.

So the emperor tells the bird catcher jump in a fire. The crow gives him advice—first to beat his wife and drive her away. Then to coat himself in the foam of a horse before entering the flame—and doing so, he survives and appears all the younger. Seeing this, the people call him to be released—and the emperor declares the bird catcher will be his vizier. Asking how he can be young, the emperor learns the trick…but it doesn’t work. Instead, he burns alive and the Bird catcher becomes the young emperor and marries the empress of nightingale.

There are more amazing birds found among the Ainu, who tell of great birds and diabolic owls. One such being is a great eagle that soars through the sky, and lives even higher beyond that. Occasionally, this eagle drops large golden feathers—if stored properly, these feathers have magical powers for three years.

A Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker

It was mentioned in passing that some birds—the cuckoo, the woodpecker, the nighthawk, the goatsucker and the owl—use their cries to betwitch people wherever they go. The owl has some mixed associations besides. Some owls guide hunters to their prey, while others are mischevious makers. Yet even the mischevious little owls know a wicked man from a good one, just from a glance.

The owl in the Avesta is a divine creation. Called the Asho-zusht, this bird recites the Avesta and prevents the nails of dead men from being used as weapons by fiends. Other wonders persist in Perisan lore—eagles, for instance, earned a life span of a century for shading the prophet Mohammed.  In Zorastrain times, the solar crow provided healing presence to Zoraster, when he suffered a curse. The feathers and bones of the raven grant victory—and that is yet accounting for the famed Simurgh. Half-bird, half-beast, it granted Rostam three feathers. Should these be burned, the great bird would arrive and display its power.

What power is this? The great birds wings from clouds and cause rain—and when he takes flight, he scatters seeds and twigs all over the world, restoring crops. That is the might of this great bird!

Thai statues of the Garuda battling Naga

The scale here implies something else to me, however. It reminds me of some descriptions of the Garuda, especially in Buddhism, where the bird has similar scope and understanding.  Its wings are cosmic in scale, golden, and beat with hurricane force. The Garuda, sometimes a singular being and sometimes an entire species of bird beings, are always at odds with the Naga.

And there is of course the crowning example of birds that live forever: the Phoenix. The Phoenix is a Greek description of a common motif—a bird that is reborn in fire and ash. According to Herodotus, the story comes from Egypt, and yet the bird comes from Arabia—rising in the East it seems, to die in the West. It comes every five hundred years, covered in myrrh. The color of this bird varies, but it is generally the size of an eagle—although sometimes it resembles a peacock.

The Bennu Bird

But is there an Egyptian bird that resemble the phoenix? There is! The Bennu bird, a self created deity that existed before the rest of the world. At least one text has this great bird flying over the waters before the world, landing on a stone, and demanding the world be made! The Bennu, like the Phoenix, is associated with the sun. Bennu is the inner soul of Ra, and rises into the air with the sun every day. While it does not die like the phoenix, it is a solar bird of immense age that travels across the world.

North there is another bird that perhaps resembles more the Simurgh. The Konrul appears as a peacock so big it can carry off a cart,  with chimeric features. Sometimes it is a bird-dog hybrid, other times it has a dog head sometimes a dog head with human face, sometimes lion claws. Like the Garuda, it has an enmity to snakes. It lives near large sources of water, and like the Simurgh gifted a hero three of its feathers—in this case for saving it’s children.

A common thing with ancient birds, then, is the sun, song, and dominance over the skies. The bird as a beautiful creature that is treasured for its song and wisdom—especially crows—is fairly common. Out of curiosity, I decided to look up the longest living bird, and the longest lived parrot (since of course, parrots are famed for their mimicry of human speech).  The three current contenders are all almost a hundred years old—but the oldest bird is one named Cocky Bennett, a cockatoo that exceeded a century in its life time. While not mythic in proportion, a century old bird feels appropriate for a story where secrets are revealed by a strange bird.

This story’s prompt actually reminds me, strangely enough, of our story of the feline who wrote in her owner’s voice from beyond the grave. The idea here I think is very much similar—and Cocky Bennett’s story of being passed on in inheritance feels like the actual start to a story. A bird from a dead and strange relative, that whispers and repeats strange things at night. And sometimes, of course, just speaks with the voice of a dead man.

Bibliography

Batchelor, John.  The Ainu and their folklore. The Religious Tract Society. 1901

Goodell, Grace. “Bird Lore in Southwestern Iran.” Asian Folklore Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, 1979, pp. 131–153. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1177687. Accessed 28 Oct. 2020.

Marshall, Bonnie C. Tales from the Heart of the Balkans. Libraries Unlimited Inc, Englewood Colorado, 2001.

Wilkinson, Richard H. (2003). The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. p. 212. ISBN 0-500-05120-8.

Wratislaw, Albert Henry. Sixty Folk-Tales From Exclusively Slavonic Sources. London. E. Stock,1889.

We actually rewrote the last story on birds on our Patreon here: https://www.patreon.com/posts/late-january-24921428

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