Even Sparrows... Bird watchers


Posted: 12.01.23 in Articles category

It is not surprising that pelicans feature in Christian folklore. They are huge water birds with wingspans exceeding three metres; they gather in large flocks to fly or feed on shallow inland waters, and they can be individually tamed with relative ease if fed. They are highly visible, therefore, in the places where they are found and that includes the biblical lands along the eastern Mediterranean. They are also very distinctive in appearance, thanks to their strange-looking and seemingly disproportionately big beaks. Not only are these very long, but their lower mandibles incorporate an extendable skin pouch with which they catch their prey - usually fish.

What is surprising is the nature of that folklore. From very early in the Christian era, pelicans were perceived to be symbolic of Christ himself, on account of the mother pelican's alleged practice of piercing her breast and feeding her dead young with her blood. It seems the idea first emerged in the 'Physiologus', a Greek text written in Alexandria, Egypt, during the second or third century A.D. This book was a collection of stories about north African animals and birds, featuring a brief description and an allegorical interpretation that explained what each creature signified in terms of Christian teaching. Over time the book was translated across Christendom and enlarged, accumulating more animals and accompanying interpretations. It is important to remember that people in the medieval era looked for symbolism in the creatures and things around them. They believed the natural world served as a 'book of nature', designed by God to provide humanity with a source of instruction.

"But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind."

That belief was in part based on biblical verses like these quoted from the book of Job (chapter 12 verses 7-10). Animal characteristics and attributes therefore were no accident, but instead were God-given means to exemplify proper human behaviour or to reinforce the teachings of the Bible. Hence the mother pelican bringing her dead young back to life with her own blood symbolised Christ's redemptive act in shedding his blood on the Cross. During the centuries that followed, the 'Physiologus' spawned a genre of literature known as the Bestiary - 'the book of beasts'. Bestiaries were popular throughout the Middle Ages in northern Europe, particularly around the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in France and Britain with notable examples like the bestiary of Guillaume le Clerc and the lavishly illustrated Aberdeen Bestiary. Typically, bestiaries were illustrated with pictures of stylized creatures providing imagery that was widely used elsewhere - in other manuscripts, in church wall paintings and carvings, in mosaics or woven into tapestries. Such imagery acted as a 'visual language' for the devout who were largely uneducated and illiterate, yet they would know the stories associated with the image of the creature and remember the teaching.

Let us return to the pelican. The original written version of the pelican myth comes from the 'Physiologus’ and has been recounted as follows:

"The little pelicans strike their parents and the parents, striking back, kill them. But on the third day the mother pelican strikes and opens her side and pours blood over her dead young. In this way they are revivified and made well." 

Various versions of the story emerged over the centuries, sometimes with different identities for the killers of the chicks and their motivations in so doing. One version has the male parent responsible, striking his young in anger on account of their ingratitude despite being fed and nurtured, another version holds the mother responsible for their death after both her and the male have been pecked in the face by the chicks, while yet another version has a serpent responsible who sneaks into the nest and bites the chicks. What all versions have in common is that a parent bird, after three days, cuts its body with its beak and drips its blood onto the dead chicks which brings them back to life. All these versions are allegories in which the parent pelican represents Christ sacrificing his life out of love for humankind. The thirteenth century theologian, Thomas Aquinas, was evidently so impressed by the symbolism that he included the following verse in his hymn, 'Humbly we Adore Thee':

Pelican of Piety, Jesus, Lord and God, Cleanse thou me, unclean, in thy most precious blood, But a drop of which doth save and free All the universe from its iniquity."

For me it is a truly bizarre fable and difficult to explain how it might have arisen. One reason suggested by some modern commentators puts it down to the pelican's red-tipped bill which, when it rests on its white-feathered breast, gives the appearance at a distance that the bird has stabbed itself and spilt blood. Whatever the thinking behind the legend, the belief that pelicans fed their young with blood persisted for at least 1500 years. The first edition of the King James Bible published in 1611 depicted a pelican feeding her young on its title page. As late as 1650, it was still being presented as factual according to a bird encyclopaedia published that year.

At around the same time the legend of the Christ-like pelican leapt a continent and arrived in North America. French and Spanish migrants began to settle along the southern coastline in what is now the US state of Louisiana, and it seems that some of them remembered the pelican story when they encountered the indigenous Brown Pelicans. They took the image of the pelican feeding its young as their symbol and over time adopted it for their state flag. That was made official in 1912 to mark the centenary of Louisiana joining the United States. Remarkably, the pelican story in the American state has continued even into the twenty first century. A student at a Catholic high school in Houma noticed that the state flag no longer featured blood droplets and successfully lobbied to have the design changed to make the symbolism clear. The revised flag showing three drops of blood falling from the parent pelican's breast was unveiled to the public in 2010.

Closer to home, the pelican feeding image still has resonance today in Ireland where the Irish Blood Transfusion service uses a pelican as its symbol. And the Church of Ireland cathedral at Downpatrick has a modern mosaic featuring a parent bird feeding as many as four chicks with the standardised three drops of blood as I discovered for myself per chance on a family visit.

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