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, 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. Some language games are also referred to as the language of birds, such as in Oromo and Amharic of Ethiopia.[4]

Ukrainian language is known as "nightingale speech" amongst its speakers.[citation needed]

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.

The 'birds' are also mentioned in Homer's Odyssey : "“[...] although I am no prophet really, and I do not know much about the meaning of birds. I tell you he will not long be absent from his dear native land, not if chains of iron hold him fast. He will find a way to get back, for he is never at a loss."[5]

Afro-Asiatic folklore[edit]

In the Quran, Suleiman (Solomon) and David are said to have been taught the language of the birds.[6] Within Sufism, the language of birds is a mystical divine language. The Conference of the Birds is a mystical poem of 4647 verses by the 12th century Persian poet Attar of Nishapur.[7]

In the Jerusalem Talmud,[8] 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 mdw-ntjr ("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. One example is the Russian story The Language of the Birds

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".[9]

René Guénon, has written an article about the symbolism of the language of the birds.[10]

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.

The English musician Sting released a song called "Language of Birds" on his 2013 album The Last Ship.

See also[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. ^ Kebbede Hordofa and Peter Unseth. 1986. "Bird Talk" in Oromo. Quaderni di Studi Etiopici 6-7:74-83
  5. ^ The Odyssey - Chapter 1 - What Went On in the House of Odysseus
  6. ^ 27:16 "And Solomon inherited David. He said, "O people, we have been taught the language of birds, and we have been given from all things. Indeed, this is evident bounty."
  7. ^ METmuseum.org
  8. ^ Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 1909
  9. ^ Letarot.com
  10. ^ René Guénon - Symbols of Sacred Science, Chapter 9 - The Language of birds

Bibliography[edit]

  • Animal Symbolism in Celtic Mythology, by Lars Noodén (1992)
  • Davidson, H.R. Ellis. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions. Syracuse University Press: Syracuse, NY, USA, 1988.
  • Yves Monin (Emmanuel), Hiéroglyphes Français Et Langue Des Oiseaux, Editions du Point d'Eau.
  • Richard Khaitzine, La Langue des Oiseaux - Quand ésotérisme et littérature se rencontrent, France-spiritualites.com
  • René Guénon, The Language of the Birds, Australia's Sufi Magazine "The Treasure" 2 (1998).
  • Ormsby-Lennon, Hugh "Rosicrucian Linguistics: Twilight of a Renaissance Tradition," passim. Ed. Ingrid Merkel, Hermeticism and the Renaissance: Intellectual History and the Occult in Early Modern Europe (1988), pp. 311 - 341.
  • (French) Le verland des oiseaux (The Verlan of the Birds) Collection "Pommes Pirates Papillons", Poèmes de Michel Besnier. Illustrations de Boiry, Editions Møtus
  • (French) Definition of Verlan English fr:Verlan

External links[edit]