And ere the repeated word
From the boughs again was heard,
Spake he, in calm,—”O hameh-bird,
“Well I know thy voice: I heed;
So would I, though girdling steed
Of the dauntless Nejdee breed;
“So would I, though borne serene,
Where the air is cool and clean,
A roc’s mighty wings between.
“Sound no more thy ‘Iskoonee’
Thou shalt have thy drink of me—
Wait but till the stars I see.”
Zafir slew himself that night
With his sword of flaming light,
And the hameh-bird took flight.
–Excerpt from poem “Hameh” by Henry D. Muir
Grunge-Rock God Kurt Cobain once philosophized, “Birds…scream at the top of their lungs in horrified hellish rage every morning at daybreak to warn us all of the truth. They know the truth. Screaming bloody murder all over the world in our ears, but sadly we don’t speak bird.” Although I’m pretty sure he was not referencing pre-Islamic Arabian mythology, he gives a fairly accurate description of the Hâmah (sometimes “Hameh”), a murdered soul returned in the form of a bird to torment his murder until death and drink his blood.
Some believed a metempsychosis, and that of the blood near the dead person’s brain, was formed a bird named Hameh, which once in a hundred years visited the sepulchre: though others say that this bird is animated by the soul of him that is unjustly slain, and continually cries ” Iskoonee! Iskoonee!” (that is, Give ye me to drink! give ye me to drink!), meaning, of the murderer’s blood, till his death be revenged; and then it flies away (Lane, 1843, p35).
Islam took hold in the Arabian Peninsula in roughly 630 A.D., but until that time, a robust Arabian polytheism dominated, which like many other Ancient Semitic religions, arose from murky origins in Mesopotamian mythology (much the same as proto-Judaism and proto-Christianity, as well as the lion’s share of ancient mythology in the Near East and North Africa). The Sumerian story of the fertility god Ishtar’s descent into the Lower World (the afterlife) suggests the idea that the souls of the dead lead a somewhat gloomy existence in the underworld as birds or bird-like creatures.
To the land of no return, the land of darkness,
Ishtar, the daughter of Sin directed her thought,
Directed her thought, Ishtar, the daughter of Sin,
To the house of shadows, the dwelling, of Irkalla,
To the house without exit for him who enters therein,
To the road, whence there is no turning,
To the house without light for him who enters therein,
The place where dust is their nourishment, clay their food.’
They have no light, in darkness they dwell.
Clothed like birds, with wings as garments,
Over door and bolt, dust has gathered.
Ishtar on arriving at the gate of the land of no return,
To the gatekeeper thus addressed herself.
(Jastrow, 1915, p453-454. Excerpt from Cuneiform Texts, XV, Pl.45-48)
This no doubt influenced later Arabian polytheism and even carries over into later Islamic traditions talking about all the souls of the martyred dead remaining peacefully in the form of birds until the Judgment Day, as mentioned in the Hadith (recorded sayings of the prophet Muhammad), “The souls, of the martyrs live in the bodies of green birds who have their nests in chandeliers hung from the throne of the Almighty. They eat the fruits of Paradise from wherever they like and then nestle in these chandeliers. Once their Lord cast a glance at them and said: Do ye want anything? They said: What more shall we desire? We eat the fruit of Paradise from wherever we like. Their Lord asked them the same question thrice. When they saw that they will continue to be asked and not left (without answering the question). they said: O Lord, we wish that Thou mayest return our souls to our bodies so that we may be slain in Thy way once again. When He (Allah) saw that they had no need, they were left (to their joy in heaven)” (Hadith, from ‘The Book on Government (Kitab Al-Imara)’ of Sahih Muslim). This is especially puzzling since Mohammed specifically calls out the Hâmah, involving the folk belief that the bones of deceased souls could return as predatory birds, as something to be rejected by Muslims. Luckily, nobody’s theology requires Aristotelian logic as a prerequisite. Hence, even today we have the Turkish euphemism for death, Ruh ateşi söndü (“His soul bird has flown away”). The cross-cultural ubiquity of the depiction of the human soul as a bird is astonishingly consistent. Greeks, Celts, Slavs, and Finno-Ugric peoples thought the dead could reappear as birds and that birds were connected with carrying away souls. Hindu mythology symbolizes the soul as a bird. “One of the most widely-known symbolisms of birds is the representation of the soul. The oldest testimony of the belief in the bird-souls is, undoubtedly, in the myth of the Phoenix, the purple bird of fire; that is, made of living strength. In the frescoes of ancient Egypt we see how a bird with the head of a man or woman symbolizes the soul of the deceased or a god who visits the Earth. The conception of the bird-soul and, therefore, the identification of death with a bird are already attested to in the religions of the archaic Middle East. The Book of the Dead describes death as a falcon ascending in flight and in Mesopotamia the deceased are represented in the form of birds. But also in the Christian system of symbols we see how at the moment of death the soul leaves in the form of a bird” (Roque, 2010, p99).
But the Hâmah is more than a happy little bird, flapping a soul away to heaven. The Hâmah is a tremendously angry bird, bent on bloodthirsty revenge and cries for vengeance due to the unnatural death of his mortal shell. I do not believe that they have an App for that. Maybe they do, or will in 18 months—only death, taxes, and Moore’s law appear to be inevitable.
Another curious belief of the Arabs is in the existence of a bird called the Hameh. This uncomfortable creation of the Arab fancy is said to spring from the blood of a murdered man. Its weird cry is continuously “Iskoonee,” a word signifying “give me to drink,” and it rests not, day nor night, till its thirst is quenched in the murderer’s blood. When the death of the victim is avenged it flies away to some place left altogether indefinite in the Eastern legend, but probably it wends its way to the spirit-land with the welcome news that the victim’s blood no longer cries in vain for vengeance. To an Arab already suffering from an evil conscience the belief in the Hameh must be a terrible one, as he hears in fancy the troubled air filled with the wailing cry and fierce demand for vengeance, and knows that, day or night, the haunting sound will never leave his ears until the desert feud be avenged and his own life blood be poured out like water upon the burning sand (Hulme, 1886, p141-142).
I don’t know about you, but if I happen to hear the cry of “Iskoonee”, my intention is to get the heck out of the way since it signifies one aggressively pissed off spectral avian out for blood. The hâmah has often been associated with the owl, albeit one incredibly vicious and blood-drinking owl with a serious grudge.
Before Islam, Arabs believed that the predatory bird hâmah or the owl had a very bad omen. If such a bird dies near someone’s house, the house’s owner should expect that one of the residents will die. In addition, Arabs believed that the bones of the deceased or their souls would turn later into predatory birds as one way of incarnation; as a result, the Prophet emphasized the falsity of the mythical basis of such a belief…Until this day, the owl is viewed as a bad omen by many Arabs. In addition, the hâmah was believed to be a worm leaving a man’s skull if he was killed without being avenged. It would circle around the man’s tomb saying: ‘water me’, asking for vengeance. Jews in Arabia used to think that the hâmah would circle round a man’s tomb for seven days before departing (Al-Rawi, 2009, p59)
You will no doubt recognize the same motif used in movie The Crow. Guy is murdered. Bird ushers his soul back and forth from the afterlife to seek revenge for the death of his true love (not to mention himself). A very Hollywood Hâmah. Even Shakespeare got in on the action when he had Hamlet utter the words, “The croaking raven doth bellow for revenge”. Apparently, vengeance is a poultry dish best served cold, and a popular waiter is the monster. The Hâmah is the horrific equivalent of take-out, and highlights our need for swift and certain retribution for sins here on Earth, regardless of what our religions suggest to us about turning the other cheek, or letting our Gods sort it out at some unspecified day of judgment in the future. Then again, that’s probably what the roots of law and religion are all about in the first place. As Victorian horror novelist Mary Elizabeth Braddon observed, “That he will haunt the footsteps of his enemy after death is the one revenge which a dying man can promise himself; and if men had power thus to avenge themselves the earth would be peopled with phantoms”. We really are an insufferably nasty little species. For some reason, I feel like chicken for dinner.
Al-Rawi, Ahmed. “The Mythical Ghoul in Arabic Culture”. Cultural Analysis 8. Univeristy of California, 2009, p45-69.
Hulme, F. Edward 1841-1909. Myth-land. London: S. Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1886.
Jastrow, Morris, 1861-1921. The Civilization of Babylonia And Assyria: Its Remains, Language, History, Religion, Commerce, Law, Art, And Literature. Philadelphia: Lippincott company, 1915.
Lane, Edward William, 1801-1876, and George Sale. Selections From the Ḳur-án: Commonly Called, In England, the Koran; With an Interwoven Commentary. London: J. Madden, 1843.
Muir, Henry Dupee 1870-. Songs and Other Fancies. Chicago, 1901.
Roque, Maria Angels. “Birds: Metaphor of the Soul”, Quaderns de la Mediterrània 12. European Institute of the Mediteranian: IEMED, 2010, p96-1008.