Flights of Imagination: How Birds Have Been Reinvented As Mythical Creatures Around The World
Mythical creatures can be found in almost any culture around the world, and they can take on a variety of forms. Often, they also make reference to indigenous species of flora and fauna. When we think of mythical beings that bear resemblance to real life creatures, it becomes clear that some have emerged as prototypes for these processes. In particular, birds have been invented, reinvented, collaged, embellished and redefined across space and time.
Owing to the fact that birds can be found across all seven continents, they have featured as characters in fictional stories (Jemima Puddle-Duck or Kehaar in Watership Down), cartoons (Big Bird in Sesame Street or Bad Badtz-Maru by Sanrio) and movies (Iago in the animated Aladdin films). They also feature prominently in mythologies. These bird-like creatures often draw upon characteristics associated with birds, such as feathers, wings, beaks or talons. Within stories about these creatures, their characteristics or abilities are often highlighted or made obvious. Sculptures, drawings and paintings could be made in these creatures’ likenesses as well. These could have been used to illustrate stories, or as tools to further dramatise their telling. Through iconographies and representations, artists imbued mythical beings with physical shapes or forms, evidencing an indelible relationship between word and image.
The simurgh also features in other important works of Persian literature. Written by Farid ud-Din Attar in the 12th century, The Conference of the Birds, is centered around a quest for the legendary Simurgh. Within Sufi mysticism, the simurgh is often used as a metaphor for God. As such, the quest outlined in The Conference of the Birds was really a search for divine presence and wisdom.2
Depictions of the Persian simurgh are similar, in many ways, to the East Asian phoenix, or fenghuang. Both mythical birds are often portrayed with impressive plumage and their wings spread wide, mid-flight.
Phoenixes can be found on textiles, jars, bowls, plates, paintings and jewelry. A couple of visual markers have been used to set phoenixes apart from other birds, mythical or not. According to the Erya (尔雅), the oldest surviving Chinese encyclopaedic volume, the phoenix has a cock's head, a snake's neck, a swallow's chin, a tortoise's back, and a fish's tail. These attributes tend to be stylised in visual portrayals, with its avian features, such as feathers and talons, emphasised. Within Chinese literary tradition, the phoenix was also said to rest only on branches of the paulownia tree. This meant that in visual depictions, the mythical bird would often be accompanied by lush foliage.
In comparison, garudas within Buddhist tradition are a species of mythical beings. They are often seen in opposition to nagas, which are serpentine mythical beings that feature in The Mahabharata as well. Garudas are seen as having a protective function, and they were charged with the protection of Mount Meru.8
Depictions of the garuda oscillate between the zoomorphic and the anthropomorphic. Today, the image of the garuda can be found on national emblems of countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia.
There are differing versions of his origin story, but the most well known retellings feature cosmological themes of creation. Huītzilōpōchtli was born to Coatlicue, the goddess of Venus. Huītzilōpōchtli's siblings, Coyolxauhqui and Centzon Huitznahua, were the goddess of the stars and gods of the stars respectively. The story goes that Huītzilōpōchtli's siblings plotted to kill Coatlicue when they discovered that she was with child. As the siblings attempted to decapitate their mother, Huītzilōpōchtli emerged from her womb and dismembered Coyolxauhqui. All of this relates to his standing as one of the most important gods within the Aztec pantheon. A capstone excavated from the site of the Templo Mayor depicts Coyolxauhqui dismembered.
Translating oral or textual descriptions into visual formats necessitates processes that are complicated and dynamic. With regions and cultures that were connected by overland and maritime trade routes, it is clear that these interactions allowed for pictorial motifs, religious tradition, and even mythical creatures themselves to be shared, exchanged and referenced. This, coupled with rich local traditions, gave rise to depictions of mythical bird-like beings that were unique yet intertwined.
Stories form the very basis of many cultures. Although we’ve come a long way from gathering around a storyteller, we still are enthralled by modern day tales, both real and imagined. The philosopher David Hume attributed this to causal relations, as we consider ideas of cause and effect. Albeit simplistic in his essentialisation, it is interesting that questions about the existence of universalising myths continued to perplex Enlightenment scholars. Myths have always been a way of explaining and understanding the natural and inhabited world, and because of this, they will always captivate our imagination.
1 Schmidt, Hanns-Peter. “SIMORḠ." Encyclopaedia Iranica. Accessed 14 January, 2019. http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/simorg.
2 Reinert, B. “AṬṬĀR, FARĪD-AL-DĪN." Encyclopaedia Iranica. Accessed 16 January, 2019. http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/attar-farid-al-din-poet.
3 The David Collection. “Symbolism in Islamic Art." Accessed 16 January, 2019. https://www.davidmus.dk/en/collections/islamic/cultural-history-themes/symbolism/art/32b-1987.
4 National Palace Museum, Taiwan. “The Dragon and The Phoenix in Chinese Art." Accessed 16 January, 2019. http://www.npm.gov.tw/exhbition/dro0001/english/c1main.htm.
5 Carboni, Stefano and Qamar Adamjee. “A New Visual Language Transmitted Across Asia." Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Accessed 16 January, 2019. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/khan4/hd_khan4.htm.
6 Wardwell, Anne E. “Flight of the Phoenix: Crosscurrents in Late Thirteenth- to Fourteenth-Century Silk Patterns and Motifs." The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 74, no. 1 (1987): 2-35.
7 Dehejia, Vidya. “Recognizing the Gods.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Accessed 16 January, 2019. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/gods/hd_gods.htm.
8 O'Brien, Barbara. “Garuda: Divine Bird Creatures of Myth.” Thought Co. Accessed 16 January, 2019. https://www.thoughtco.com/garuda-449818.
9 Maestri, Nicoletta. “Huitzilopochtli: The Aztec God of the Sun, War, and Sacrifice.” Thought Co. Accessed 14 January, 2019. https://www.thoughtco.com/huitzilopochtli-aztec-god-of-the-sun-171229.
10 Guggenheim. “Gods & Rituals.” Accessed 14 January, 2019. https://www.guggenheim.org/arts-curriculum/topic/gods-and-rituals.
11 Boone, Elizabeth H. “Incarnations of the Aztec Supernatural: The Image of Huitzilopochtli in Mexico and Europe." Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 79, no. 2 (1989): 5.
12 Guggenheim. “Mexico-Tenochtitlan, Axis Mundi of the Universe.” Accessed 15 January, 2019. https://www.guggenheim.org/arts-curriculum/topic/mexico-tenochtitlan.
1 Whilst preparing for this post, we came across a blog that discusses the influence of birds on culture. It goes into further detail as to just how strong and established the connection between human society, human imagination and avian critters is.