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 hoopoe 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.
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
into the dimpled lake.
©2014 Christine Irving