Tag Archives: oracle

The Auger

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The Auger

… If a bird flying from right to left

disappears, it is favorable; but if it raises

its left wing, flies away and disappears,

it is unfavorable.  If a bird flying from left

to right disappears on a straight course,

it is unfavorable; but if after raising

its right wing and flying away it disappears,

it is favorable …

~translated by Derek Collins from an inscription at Ephesus (late 6th century B.C.E.)

As the above description demonstrates, augury, divination by interpreting the flight, action, song and colors of birds, dates back to ancient days.  One can safely assume with most inscriptions of this kind of lore that the procedure described was in actual practice for many many, years before anyone bothered to write it down.  It’s the same with fairy tales, folk songs or myths – they didn’t appear the moment someone actually decided to record them, instead they are part of a long oral tradition whose original telling disappears into the mist of prehistory.

Birds are descended from dinosaurs, survivors of the great worldwide destruction by comet that marked the end of the Cretaceous period.  They have been around for the entire history of the human race – good fairies at our birth, flying between the worlds of imagination and physical reality to bring us messages from the gods and from our own innermost selves.

Interpreting their messages requires a profound knowledge of bird behavior.  Once upon a time, when most people lived close the land and saw the divine in everything, folks paid much closer attention to the way things work and connect.  But as time passed, many of us moved to cities and our work became so specialized we diverted our attention from the wider world and began to focus on the inner workings of one or two things instead of the interrelationship of the many.  Gradually, we came to rely on prophets, priests, oracles and augers to pay attention in our stead and tell us what meaning the signs, we once interpreted ourselves, held.

My collage depicts just such a person.  She sits  on the edge of a large pot or cauldron symbolizing the primordial womb that contains and sustains, protects and gestates, provides food and gifts and gives birth.  It represents the dark void out of which the universe sparks into being.  Out of  her pots fly seven birds whose flight will inform her answer to the question I have come to ask.  She is a priestess of the night and her rites are conducted in the light of the full moon.  Her special guide is an owl, once sacred to Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom.  tetradrachmOwls have long been symbols of wisdom, sorcery and magic.  The owl was believed to have the power to illuminate Athena’s shadow side, thus enabling her to speak the whole truth.  Ancient Romans believed that an owl’s heart, placed on the breast of a sleeping woman, forced her to tell all her secrets.  Egyptians drew owls, sculpted them and wrote with them.  Egyptian owl 2To this very day, Algerian folklore states that to make a woman tell you everything, put the eye of an owl into her sleeping hand.  Most cultures attach symbolic meaning to the owl, for good or ill they associate it with femininity and magic.  Owls are found in all regions of Earth except Antarctica and some remote islands; their DNA dates back to the very first birds.  Humans have held them in special regard since the beginning.  Witness the cave paintings  of Chauvet, France, which date back 35,000 years, and contain a depiction of an owl, drawn the way today’s children still draw them.

Owl from Chauvet 35,000 BCE

Owl from Chauvet
35,000 BCE

Owls are considered evil omens by some, but I think that dread arises from fear of the dark.  Once one accepts darkness and learns to appreciate its gifts, fear diminishes, though a certain amount of awe and respect is appropriate and necessary to approach the divine in any aspect.

Recently a friend found a small owl dead beside the road.  She is drying the body out in cornmeal and in a month or so we will respectfully and ceremoniously pluck and divide the feathers.  Owls hold special symbolic significance for me and form part of my individual cosmology.  I feel honored that Owl has made its presence known, once again, and am glad for the privilege and opportunity of acknowledging it through art.

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The Language of the Birds

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Lakshi Listened

The language of the birds has a venerable history dating back to the ancient Greek world.  Aesop was supposed to have understood it, as did Tiresias.  The figurehead of Jason’s ship, the Argo, carved of wood from a sacred grove of trees at the oracle site of Dodona, could speak with birds.  The priestesses of Dodona received their prophecies from the rustling leaves of the oak.  Herodotus reported that:

“… two black doves had come flying from Thebes in Egypt, one to Libya and one to Dodona; the latter settled on an oak tree, and there uttered human speech, declaring that a place of divination from Zeus must be made there; the people of Dodona understood that the message was divine, and therefore established the oracular shrine …”  

Sacred trees and birds naturally share a long association, one I am sure will reveal itself in artwork to come.  Meanwhile, we can’t leave Greece without mentioning Aristophanes and his satirical play The Birds, in which two men conspire with a hoopoe bird to try and overthrow Olympus.

The hoopoehoopoe was valued for his virtue by Persians, but seen as a harbinger of death in Scandinavia.  He introduced King Solomon to Sheba.  In Egypt they painted his sacred image into the walls of their tombs.  Jumping ahead two thousand years to the work of the Sufi mystic poet, Farid al-Din Attar, we find the hoopoe leading a Conference of Birds on a quest for enlightenment.  About the same time, on the other side of Europe, troubadours were thought to write poetry and sing in the language of birds, while alchemists claimed that same avian lexicon as an arcane mystical language holding the secrets of the universe.  Others considered the language of the birds another name for angel-speak.

As you can see, it’s a fascinating topic.  There are even some fairy tales written about it, giving me enough material to inspire several weeks of work.  This week I started out as usual to create a collage, beginning by digging out my bird file and cutting images for a couple of hours.  However, I couldn’t make them coalesce into anything interesting.  Instead, I wrote a poem, Lakshmi* Listens, and illustrated it with a power point slide.  I then saved the image as a jpeg and posted it here.  I am still not as “outside the box” as I would like to be, but already the chains feel a bit looser…

* Lakshmi – the Hindu goddess of spiritual and material prosperity, wealth, purity, generosity, and the embodiment of beauty, grace and charm.

MADRE LAKSHMI

  Lakshmi Listens

Living alone

she learns to listen

distinguishing tweet from chirp

 chitter from squawk, constricting

 tongue and throat, rasping 0ut

syllables harsh enough to splinter ice;

whistling refrains so sweetly pitched

Lakshmi stoops to overhear, dripping

nectar tears

into the dimpled lake.

©2014 Christine Irving