Language of the birds

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Huginn and Muninn sit on Odin's shoulders in this illustration from an 18th-century Icelandic manuscript.

In mythology, medieval literature and occultism, the language of the birds is postulated as a mystical, perfect divine language, green language, adamic language, enochian language, angelic language or a mythical or magical language used by birds to communicate with the initiated.

History[edit]

In Indo-European religion, the behavior of birds has long been used for the purposes of divination by augurs. According to a suggestion by Walter Burkert, these customs may have their roots in the Paleolithic when, during the Ice Age, early humans looked for carrion by observing scavenging birds.[1]

There are also examples of contemporary bird-human communication and symbiosis. In North America, ravens have been known to lead wolves (and native hunters) to prey they otherwise would be unable to consume.[2][3] In Africa, the Greater Honeyguide is known to guide humans to beehives in the hope that the hive will be incapacitated and opened for them.

Dating to the Renaissance, birdsong was the inspiration for some magical engineered languages, in particular musical languages. Whistled languages based on spoken natural languages are also sometimes referred to as the language of the birds.

Ukrainian language is known as "nightingale speech" amongst its speakers.

Mythology[edit]

Norse mythology[edit]

In Norse mythology, the power to understand the language of the birds was a sign of great wisdom. The god Odin had two ravens, called Hugin and Munin, who flew around the world and told Odin what happened among mortal men.

The legendary king of Sweden Dag the Wise was so wise that he could understand what birds said. He had a tame house sparrow which flew around and brought back news to him. Once, a farmer in Reidgotaland killed Dag's sparrow, which brought on a terrible retribution from the Swedes.

The ability could also be acquired by tasting dragon blood. According to the Poetic Edda and the Völsunga saga, Sigurd accidentally tasted dragon blood while roasting the heart of Fafnir. This gave him the ability to understand the language of birds, and his life was saved as the birds were discussing Regin's plans to kill Sigurd. Through the same ability Áslaug, Sigurd's daughter, found out the betrothment of her husband Ragnar Lodbrok, to another woman.

The 11th century Ramsund carving in Sweden depicts how Sigurd learnt the language of birds, in the Poetic Edda and the Völsunga saga

The 11th century Ramsund carving in Sweden depicts how Sigurd learnt the language of birds, in the Poetic Edda and the Völsunga saga.

  1. Sigurd is sitting naked in front of the fire preparing the dragon heart, from Fafnir, for his foster-father Regin, who is Fafnir's brother. The heart is not finished yet, and when Sigurd touches it, he burns himself and sticks his finger into his mouth. As he has tasted dragon blood, he starts to understand the birds' song.
  2. The birds say that Regin will not keep his promise of reconciliation and will try to kill Sigurd, which causes Sigurd to cut off Regin's head.
  3. Regin is dead beside his own head, his smithing tools with which he reforged Sigurd's sword Gram are scattered around him, and
  4. Regin's horse is laden with the dragon's treasure.
  5. is the previous event when Sigurd killed Fafnir, and
  6. shows Ótr from the saga's beginning.

In an eddic poem loosely connected with the Sigurd tradition which is named Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar, the reason why a man named Atli once had the ability is not explained. Atli's lord's son Helgi would marry what was presumably Sigurd's aunt, the Valkyrie Sváfa.

Greek mythology[edit]

According to Apollonius Rhodius, the figurehead of Jason's ship, the Argo, was built of oak from the sacred grove at Dodona and could speak the language of birds. Tiresias was also said to have been given the ability to understand the language of the birds by Athena. The language of birds in Greek mythology may be attained by magical means. Democritus, Anaximander, Apollonius of Tyana, Melampus and Aesopus were all said to have understood the birds.

Afro-Asiatic mythologies[edit]

In Sufism, the language of birds is a mystical language of angels. The Conference of the Birds (mantiq at-tair) is a mystical poem of 4647 verses by the 12th century Persian poet Farid al-Din Attar[4]

In the Jerusalem Talmud (Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 1909), Solomon's proverbial wisdom was due to his being granted understanding of the language of birds by God.

In Egyptian Arabic, hieroglyphic writing is called "the alphabet of the birds". In Ancient Egyptian itself, the hieroglyphic form of writing was given the name medu-netjer ("words of the gods" or "divine language").

Folklore[edit]

The concept is also known from many folk tales (including Welsh, Russian, German, Estonian, Greek, Romany), where usually the protagonist is granted the gift of understanding the language of the birds either by some magical transformation, or as a boon by the king of birds. The birds then inform or warn the hero about some danger or hidden treasure.

Alchemy[edit]

In Kabbalah, Renaissance magic, and alchemy, the language of the birds was considered a secret and perfect language and the key to perfect knowledge, sometimes also called the langue verte, or green language (Jean Julien Fulcanelli, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa de occulta philosophia, Emmanuel-Yves Monin, Hieroglyphes Français Et Langue Des Oiseaux)

Literature and culture[edit]

Compare also the rather comical and satirical Birds of Aristophanes and Parliament of Fowls by Chaucer.

In medieval France, the language of the birds (la langue des oiseaux) was a secret language of the Troubadours, connected with the Tarot, allegedly based on puns and symbolism drawn from homophony, e. g. an inn called au lion d'or "the Golden Lion" is allegedly "code" for au lit on dort "in the bed one sleeps"[5] (note that this particular pun cannot be medieval, since final t was pronounced until Middle French, c.f. e.g. the 14th century loanword 'bonnet').

Hiéroglyphes Français Et La Langue Des Oiseaux, Editions du Point d'Eau by the illustrious author Emmanuel Yves-Monin is a systematic study on the subject only available in French.

The artificial language zaum of Russian Futurism was described as "language of the birds" by Velimir Khlebnikov.

"The language of the birds" (Die Sprache der Vögel) is a 1991 German movie. Jean Sibelius composed a wedding march titled "The language of the birds" in 1911. The children's book author Rafe Martin has written "The Language of Birds" as an adaptation of a Russian folk tale; it was made into a children's opera by composer John Kennedy.

In the film The Librarian: Quest for the Spear, the protagonist is given a book written in the language of the birds that he is tasked to decipher in order to find the spear.

In her first book, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke, in her faux footnotes, refers to a book called, "The Language of the Birds." It is among other things a reference to the fictional Raven King.

A Bird in Your Ear is a one act opera by British/American composer David Bruce based on the Russian folk tale, The Language of the Birds, with a libretto by Alasdair Middleton. It was commissioned by Bard College, NY and first performed there in March 2008. Further extracts were performed by New York City Opera in 2009.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Marzluff, John M.; Tony Angell (2007). In the Company of Crows and Ravens. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. pp. 284–287. ISBN 0-300-12255-1. 
  2. ^ McDougall, Len (2004). The Encyclopedia of Tracks and Scats. Globe Pequot. p. 296. ISBN 1-59228-070-6. 
  3. ^ Tipton, Diane (2006-07-06). "Raven Myths May Be Real". Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. Retrieved 2008-02-08. 
  4. ^ METmuseum.org
  5. ^ Letarot.com

Bibliography[edit]

External links[edit]