History Witch: Uncovering Magical Antiquity

Want to know about real magic from history? This is the place. Here we explore primary texts and historical accounts from the past.

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The Language of Birds

These quarantine times give us medievalists plenty of parallels to draw: times of plague and difficulties of travel -- but the effects are the same on us. Normally I would be with my family in Scotland by this time. There I would be hearing the screams of the gulls, the occasional melodic outburst of a blackbird and the friendly croaks of my beloved magpies.

Now I lie awake in the (earlier every day) dawn light listening to a very different set of birds: sparrows galore, North American robins -- enormous athletic birds so different from the jolly European kind -- finches, wrens, catbirds, four kinds of woodpeckers including the giant pileated woodpecker whose laugh echoes often. The crows come by to eat the corn. The bluejays tend to come in a pack and chatter loudly to one another. In the morning and at dusk you can hear the turkeys gobble.

Marooned in place is it any wonder I wish for wings? Throughout history we have been fascinated by birds from Icarus and Philomela on through legends over time. Birds have given us wisdom and magic. In ancient Rome the haruspex examined the entrails of birds for auguries.

sheep liver augury instrument [technically this is for 'reading' sheep's liver]

In the medieval English world, the flight patterns and songs of birds were of greater interest. They were augurs of weather and bearers of philosophical knowledge. Several riddles from the pre-Norman era focus on birds, suggesting a familiarity with their ways and voices. One of my favourites riddles here:

Ðeos lyft byreð   lytle wihte
ofer beorghleoþa   þa sind blace swiþe
swearte salopade   sanges rope
heapum ferað   hlude cirmað
tredað bearonæssas   hwilum burgsalo
niþþa bearna   Nemnað hy sylfe

This air uplifts the little creatures
Over the mountain slope. They're so black-cloaked
Dark plumed and liberal with song.
Traveling in company, loudly cheeping
Treading the woody shores, sometimes the houses
Near men. They name themselves!

Though like so many Old English poems there is room for interpretation about the answer to the riddle it must have been fairly unambiguous to its contemporary listeners. Swallows have a smaller voice and they move so fast, it's often hard to hear them -- especially in Dundee where the much louder birds drown out their voices. But there's no missing them as they dart swiftly across the sky.

One more thing to miss!

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K. A. Laity is an all-purpose writer, medievalist, journalist, Fulbrighter, social media maven for Broad Universe, and author of ROOK CHANT: COLLECTED WRITINGS ON WITCHCRAFT & PAGANISM, DREAM BOOK, UNQUIET DREAMS, OWL STRETCHING, CHASTITY FLAME, PELZMANTEL, UNIKIRJA, and many more stories, essays, plays and short humour. Find out more at www.kalaity.com and find her on Facebook or Twitter.


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