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

THE SUN

This Week’s Prompt: 94. Change comes over the sun—shews objects in strange form, perhaps restoring landscape of the past.

The Resulting Story:The Green Sun

Oh, this is a timely story. I’ve just returned from visiting family in the Valley of the Sun. Growing up in Arizona, I think, made the notion of the Sun as a deity rather easy to grasp—a vast, often hateful daystar that sapped life and will from everything it saw. If I wanted, I could ramble for hours on the unconscious cosmology I had from growing up in Mesa Arizona, but that is for another time. Today, I want to talk about the Sun. The strange stories of the Sun as well as the more familiar ones.

One of the more familiar stories of the sun is that it rests where it sets, and a hero sets out to find or visit it. A few Dine stories deal with the children of the Sun. The first is a son born of an unmarried woman, for the Sun had grown jealous of a chief he had never seen. This son was brought up among his own people, and at fifteen was told by a white fly that his father was the son. Shortly after he was taken to his father on a rainbow, and was taught every game that existed. The Sun conspired to win every turquoise from the chief and people that he could using his own child. And the son in turns becomes such an amazing gambler, he not only wins the turquoise but also wins the people themselves, the spirits of rain and corn, and the chief! The greatest prize he wins, however, is a turquoise the size of man with feathers sticking out of it. When the Sun descends to collect the turquoise, his son refuses—instead offers to gamble for it.

The Sun then went out and had another boy—this one grew to adult hood in fifteen years. He was then brought up and shaped by his sister to into a duplicate of the first child, the Great Gambler. He is sent out to offer gifts to various beings—the bat a buffalo hide, the snake a pair of red stones, a shell to the brown rat, some ground stones to a little breeze. These all help him, either by sabotaging the Gambler or confounding his spies, until at last the people are freed. The Sun claims the turquoise, and takes the Gambler skyward.

SunImage.png

Another Dine story tells of the Sun seeking a bride—particularly the daughter of First Man and First Woman, White Bead Girl. He arrives first while she is alone, on a white horse, as a man dressed all in white. He then visits her for four days at night, unseen, and she in turn gives birth to twins. These twins prove hard to keep at home, going out and finding spies of the monsters that roam the world. They also learn, by a strange fly, that their father is the Sun.

They then journey East—and come to a land of nothing but sand. There they are warned by an old man to use some of his vomit when the Sun offers tobacco—because the Sun is dangerous and kills with many weapons. They then reach the Sun’s turquoise, and meet his mother. She hides them when the Sun returns, with his jealous wife, on a turquoise horse. The sun tests them—first with a pipe, which they smoke four times. Then with a sweat lodge, again heated four times. He offers them gifts after accepting them as his sons, and they reject each in turn. At last he offers to give them anything, and they ask for his lighting bolt arrows. They then succeed in answering his questions of the mountains, and descend down to fight the monsters that plauge the world. They do their own work from there, not relevant to ours.

AZ Sunset.png

The Sun grants another child to a mother in Greece. She asks to have the child for twelve years, and after that the sun can have them back—so the Sun gives her a pretty girl named Maroula. When the Sun returns twelve years later, he tells the little girl when her mother will give what she promised. Her mother tells Maroula to claim she forgot—and after that fails, she doesn’t let Maroula out of her house. Eventually she grows bold, and sends Maroula out for water. The Sun finds her and takes her away to his palace,and the great garden outside it.

Maroula, however, misses her mother and cries. And her tears during the day cause the garden to wilt. The Sun asks every night why she cries, and she claims two animals were fighting and she was scratched while separating them. At last, when she reveals the source of her grief, the Sun promises to send her home. He first calls lions to attend her—but they will eat her flesh and drink her blood if they grow hungry. As do the foxes. But the deer will eat only grass.

And so they go to take her home adorned with gold coins—and when they grow hungry, they place her in a willow tree. A nearby witch, a drakena, has sent her own daughters nearby to draw water. One sees Maroula’s face and thinks it’s her own. This repeats with each daughter—until the drakena herself comes and tells Maroula to descend and let her eat the young girl. Maroula distracts her by telling her to bake bread—and then escapes on the back of dear, sending mice to distract the witch as she flees.

The Sun as a dangerous force to humanity can be seen further in a Cherokee story. Enraged that people can’t look at her, she sends waves of heat to kill humanity from her daughter’s house in the sky. Humanity consults the little people for advice on what to do—how to escape this misery, they concluded they must kill the sun. So two serpents were sent to wait at the daughter of the sun’s house, fangs ready to bite the Sun’s ankle. The snakes, however, are blinded by the sun and flee—and the deaths continue, with everyone knowing at least one person who perished to the threat. So the Little People changed one man into the great Uketna (who we discussed here) and another into the Rattlesnake. The rattle snake got a head of the great horned Uketna and bit the daughter of the sun in his eagerness. He then returned, as did the enraged Uketna who was convinced he had lost his glory.

When the Sun saw that her daughter was dead, she went into mourning. The heat death stopped, but the sun never rose again—and this eternal darkness was untenable. So the Little People sent men with special bread and a box to the land of ghosts in the west to find the lost daughter. In the land of ghosts, they would find her dancing in a circle. The men where to strike her with sticks, causing her to fall down. Then they were to put her in a box and bring her back—never opening the box even a little. The men did so, and when returning west the daughter returned to life. From her box, she called out first for food, then for water, then air. This third one worried the men, who thought she might be dying. She escapes as a redbird—and this failure means none can be brought back from the living. Her mother the Sun nearly flooded the world with tears of grief—but was stopped by the new song of the drummer.

Amaterasu From the Cave.png

The Sun’s retreat is similar in many ways to Amaterasu’s retreat. Long ago, Amaterasu’s father, Izangi, sent her brother the storm god Susanoo away for his arrogance. He returned, and offered his sister a game of god shaping—each took an item from the other and created deities from it. Amaterasu created five goddesses from Susanoo’s sword, while he made three gods from her necklace. A dispute arose over who had won, Amtaresu claiming the gods her creation as they came from her necklace. This escalated until Susanoo rampaged across the world in his rage, and hurled a flayed pony into the weaving room of Amaterasu, killing one of her handmaidens. Enraged and grieving, Amaterasu retreated into a cave.

The result was darkness and terror over the land—a situation that the gods sought to resolve. First they brought out roosters to signal the dawn and lure her out. Then they brought mirrors and jewels from a nearby tree, hoping to catch some of her light. At last, the goddess of dawn danced atop a great drum naked, to the laughter and delight of the gods. This noise brought Amaterasu’s attention, and lured her from the cave. The gods quickly sealed off the cave, and she has remained in the heavens ever since.

Khepra.png

Of course the Sun’s daily retreat through the sky is most famously remembered in the story of Ra’s voyage through the kingdom of night. This journey, which is in fact the funeral of Ra, crosses many regions, some strange, some dangerous, many serpentine–here for instance, Ra faces Apep. The sun is of course reborn at the end, rising in the dawn as the scarab headed god Khpera. Below is a video summary.

 

Only once was this voyage interrupted or changed—when the goddess Isis took some of Ra’s saliva and created a serpent from it. She placed it in the sun’s path, where it lept out and bit Ra’s ankle. As the poison bore some of Ra’s nature, it actually afflicted him. All the gods of medicine came to help Ra, but none could cure him—until Isis came, and asked for his hidden name to undo the power of the snake. Isis then puts this power to use to cure pain and potentially raise the dead!

On the other end of the Sun’s Daughter tale, the Sun as a dangerous and horrifying enemy is apparent in both Greece and Mesopatmaia. The god Apollo, while now associated with the sun and music, began his history in the Illiad as a god of plauge and healing. A comparable god was Nergal, who was the lord of the noontime sun and the summer, dry season sun. Nergal in time became a god of war and the dead, his role as a bringer of misery aiding his conquest of the underworld. The healing aspects of the Sun persisted in Shamash, who we briefly touched on in the discussion of exorcists.

Houyi the Archer.png

And while we’ve talked of the death or endangerment of the Sun, there is one instance to mention from China. Here, there were once ten suns who each took turns rising—until all ten decided to rise at the same time. The people asked for relief, and so the great archer Yi was sent down. He tried to shoot arrows near the suns, to scare them away. They defied him still, and he grew angry. Drawing back his great bow he fired at one of the great orbs of fire—and the spirit of the sun fell to earth as a three legged raven. He did so eight more times—and the fireballs they carried fell to earth to form a great island, where the endless sea and rivers evaporate upon contact.

Another instance of control of the Sun comes to us from the Maori. Maui, tired of rushing to finish his chores before the sunset, persuades his brothers that it must be taught a lesson. After much warning that it will burn him, blind him, or give him sunstroke, Maui moves ahead with the plan. The party goes and finds the hole from which the Sun rises. They lay a trap over the hole, a great noose of rope. When the sun rises through it, unawares, they pull the Sun down. When he struggled, Maui struck the sun with his magic jaw bone. Maui commanded the Sun, so captured, to move more slowly across the heavens.

Maui and the Sun.png

The light of the Sun is and always has been then a mixed blessing—it is sometimes flighty, always needed, but often jealous and painful. Here we have the use of sunlight as a sort of revelation—a connection that links all the way back to our first story of Demophon. Here we have the Sun restoring and rebuilding a landscape, perhaps revealing its hidden face. What if, and I consider this regarding our story of Amaterasu, the sun we know is the one still in the cave. Alternatively, what if the sun suffers the fate of the Aztec Suns, and is replaced by a new god on the throne? The light of the sun itself changes, and the world becomes in a way inhospitable or more hostile then it was before. Our story seems to move more cosmic by its nature, but grounding it in the experiences of one person might help with that—I’m reminded of the Twitter story/account “the Sun vanished”, which likewise has as a start a strange and horrific cosmic change. What stories about the Sun do you know?

Bibliography:

Megas, Geogrios O. Folktales of Greece.  University of Chicago Press, 1970.

O’Bryan Aileen. The Dine: Origin Myths of the Navaho Indians, Smithsonian Institution, 1955

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