A comment from EllaDee on my last post commemorating the death of Seamus Heaney, set me thinking about the superstitious nature of Irish folklore, and in particular, the symbolic meaning of certain birds. Here are a few Irish gems handed down by word of mouth, from generation to generation, since so-called ‘Pagan’ times. Christianity adapted some of these legends to square with stories in the Bible, but in this post, I’m exploring only the pre-Christian associations.
This adorable little bird became the ‘king of the birds’ when he hitched a ride on the back of an eagle and gained extra height by launching himself off the eagle’s back, thus achieving a soaring victory. The Wren was also the soul and symbol of the Oak King, sacrificed to the Sun God on the festival of Summer Solstice. It was deemed unlucky to take the eggs of a Wren and in later times, the bird became associated with poets/bards. The bi-lingual poet Michael Hartnett published a volume called ‘A Necklace of Wrens’ in 1987. The title poem describes how, on leaving their nest, a batch of fledgling wrens alighted around his neck to form a ‘feather necklet’. The poet’s grandmother, a native Irish speaker, told him this signalled he would be a file/poet. The poem ends with these lines:
That was when the craft came
Which demands respect.
Their talons left on me
Scars not healed yet.
If the soul and symbol of the old sun and the Oak King was the Wren, the Robin represented the new sun. The wren was said to hide in the Ivy, the Robin in the Holly. The Pagan Neolithic Festival of the birth of the new sun, symbolised by the Robin, was at the Winter Solstice (21st December). The Robin (the new sun) killed his father the Wren (the old sun) and that is how he got his red breast, ie, from the blood of his father. A Robin coming into a house was supposed to be a sign that someone was going to die there in the near future. Despite this association with death, the Robin was praised for being the only bird capable of singing all the notes of the musical scale. And furthermore, the Robin can sing for half an hour without repeating the melody, unlike the other birds.
Swans held a sacred place in Irish folktales and mythology. Perhaps this was due to their mysterious nature, their grace and majesty, and the fact that swans mate for life – a noble quality that goes beyond the animal instincts of flesh and feather. The most famous swan-related ancient tale is The Children of Lir, reworked later to encompass the idea of transition from Paganism to Christianity, the triumph of good over evil. The basic story involves 4 siblings, Aodh, Fiacra, Conn and Fionnula, whose wicked stepmother turns them into swans and banishes them for 900 years. A beautiful version of the full story can be found in this article.
Hens were usually associated with negative vibes – a Hen scratching in the dirt, for example could be accused of trying to dig up hidden money, or attempting to set the house on fire. In Pre-Christian times, it was (and still is in some parts of Ireland) seen as a curse if Hen’s eggs were put into a farmer’s hay or meadow field. Bealtaine was the feast of fertility and quickening and occurred on May 1st each year. This was the time when curses were most potent and eggs in hay or a field were viewed like ‘Voodoo’ – the whole year could be spoiled. In later years, it was discovered that rotten eggs contain a virus which can cause spontaneous abortion and/or infertility in cattle, so this one is more than just a superstition.
The Goose might be described as a type of flying demi-goddess in Irish folklore. Goose bones have been found buried under the floor in Neolithic dwellings and it is believed that the Goose’s migration habits were partly responsible for the sense of mystery and reverence afforded to this bird. It was noted for example, how the flight pattern formation of wild geese allows for the support of the weaker members of the flock. Each Goose in turn, takes its place at the head and then drops back in strict rotation. The weak or tired are never abandoned in this system. The Goose was seen to inhabit two worlds – the yearly migration to a place of ice, snow, and swirling mists, pointed to a mystery of life outside itself. The Goose joined two worlds together, the here and now, and an elsewhere beyond the reaches of humankind. The term ‘The Wild Geese’ was applied to approximately half a million Irish soldiers who served in European armies, eg, in France and Spain, between the 1580s and 1818. Also, the Irish Jacobite army’s departure from Ireland after William of Orange’s victory in The Battle of the Boyne, is referred to as ‘The Flight of the Wild Geese’.
No doubt it is the reputation of the Raven and its cousin the Crow, that led to the belief recalled in Heaney’s poem,‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’, that a black bird was a portent of death. Ravens were the augury birds of the Druids and were associated with Morigu, the fierce war goddess who crossed the fields of battle with her Ravens shrieking over the dead. Unlike the Crane, whose departure from the countryside in time of war meant peace, the Raven was a precursor to disaster. So strong was this belief, Ravens were sacrificed at The Winter Solstice by being buried alive. Their bones were then closely examined when exhumed and good luck followed if the bones were intact. The great Irish hero, Cuchulain, is depicted with a Raven on his shoulder, in the stunning bronze statue by Oliver Sheppard in Dublin’s G.P.O. (General Post Office where the 1916 Easter Rising took place). It is a powerful symbol and fitting considering Cuchulain’s life story in the mythical ‘Ulster Cycle’.
A Necklace of Wrens, Michael Hartnett (Gallery Press: Loughcrew, 1987)
‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’, Seamus Heaney in District and Circle (Faber & Faber, London, 2006)
A great many details in this post came from the 2002 publication by Ballintubber Abbey, Co. Mayo, God Bless All Here Except the Cat