“Everyone likes birds. What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal as a bird?” – David Attenborough
Are we jealous of the birds? They live in between worlds, able to alight upon the earth and moments later, soar unbounded into the sky in the same way we imagine our souls taking flight upon the moment of death. They are the inheritors of the dinosaurs, uncontested rulers of the land for the bulk of the planet’s existence were it not for an errant asteroid; birds were the beneficiaries of 100 million years of undomesticated freedom, scoffing at the bounds of gravity and our earthbound, bipedal perspective that finds itself limited in scope only to the horizon. Is it any wonder that there is a nearly ubiquitous cross-cultural motif in folklore that ascribes deep insights to those who manage to learn the “language of the birds”, and that occult initiates who’ve taken up bird-speak as a second language are blessed with unparalleled mystical knowledge.
Across Indo-European religions, bird behavior has often been utilized for the purposes of divination, perhaps rooted in our savvy Paleolithic ancestors watching the sky for signs of airborne scavengers circling over the rotting carcasses of animals, a sign that game was afoot and a barbecue was in the offing. Our feathered friends ascend that much closer to the heavens, thus to us wingless folk, they can at will approach much closer to divinity. Egyptian Arabic refers to hieroglyphics as “the alphabet of the birds”, replacing the ancient Egyptian designation of hieroglyphics as “the words of the gods”. In the Jerusalem Talmud, the 2nd Century A.D. compilation of the oral traditions of Judaism as well as the Koran, the wise King Solomon’s uncanny insights are credited to his knowledge of the language of the birds. The mystical Islamic tradition of Sufism similarly regards the language of the birds as divinely inspired. Norse mythology also credits Odin’s wisdom to the intelligences of his ravens Hugin and Munin, that seek out secrets and whisper them into his ear.
He summoned his two ravens, Hugin and Munin, his two ravens that flew through the earth and through the Realm of the Giants and that knew all things that were past and all things that were to come. He summoned Hugin and Munin and they came, and one sat on his right shoulder and one sat on his left shoulder and they told him deep secrets: they told him of Thiassi and of his desire for the shining apples that the Dwellers in Asgard ate, and of Loki’s deception of Iduna, the fair and simple. What Odin learnt from his ravens was told in the Council of the Gods (Colum, 1948, p23).
In both the Norse Poetic Edda and Völsunga Saga, the legendary hero Sigurd (who dies in battle with a disguised Odin) learns the language of the birds and is privy to the secrets they wish to share through tasting the blood of the fearsome dragon Fafnir.
The boy Sigurd is cared for at Alf ‘s court by the dwarf Regin, the brother of the dragon Fafnir, Regin forges Sigmund’s sword into a new one so sharp that it will cut a strand of wool in the water, and strong enough to shatter an anvil. The dwarf tries to incite Sigurd to kill Fafnir, but he will not consider it until after he has conquered the sons of Hunding, and avenged his father’s murder. Then he goes with Regin to the Gnitaheide, digs a pit in the path of the dragon and conceals himself in it, piercing the heart of the monster as he passes over the pit. The dying Fafnir warns Sigurd that the treasure will bring him destruction, and that Regin is planning to injure him. Sigurd cooks the heart of the dragon, and in testing it burns his finger and thrusts it into his mouth. Immediately he understands the language of the birds, who warn him of Regin’s treachery. He springs upon Regin and murders him. The birds advise him to take the treasure, which he does. They also tell him of a sleeping maiden on a high rock, surrounded by fire, who is awaiting her deliverer, Sigurd rushes through the flames, removes the armor from the sleeping maiden, and thus awakens her (Moore, 1917, p15).
The ancient Greeks and Romans were relatively certain that the most sagacious of their philosophers and scientists understood the language of the birds. The famed Thracian pre-Socratic thinker and inventor of one of the first atomic theories of the universe Democritus is noted by Pliny, requoted in the Noctes Atticae of Aulus Gellius as having declared, “that there were certain birds with a language of their own, and that by mixing the blood of those birds a serpent was produced; that whoso ate it would understand the language of birds and their conversation” (Noctes Atticae, Bk 10, Ch.12); Apollonius of Tyana, legendary healer Melampus was said have been “instructed by a serpent in the language of the birds” (Drummond, 1818, p7). Similar attributions are made to Animaxander, Apollonius of Tyana, and Aesop. The direct relation of serpents to birds is a consistent, but puzzling one, but folklorist James Frazer offered a potential explanation.
The reason why the serpent is especially supposed to impart a knowledge of the language of birds appears from a folklore conception of the origin of serpents. According to Democritus as reported by Pliny, serpents are generated from the mixed blood of diverse birds. This explains why serpents should understand the language of birds; they do so, because they are blood relations of birds, having the blood of birds in their veins. If we ask why serpents are thought to be formed of the blood of birds, we may conjecture that the idea originated in the observation that serpents eat birds and birds’ eggs. Hence on the folklore principle that in eating of an animal’s ﬂesh one absorbs the animal’s mental qualities, (1) the serpent acquires the bird language, (2) anyone who eats a serpent also acquires the language of birds (Frazer, 1888, p181).
Given the long classical history of a fascination with the secrets of the language of the birds and that innumerable folktales abound of one fellow or another being granted the preternatural ability to speak with them, it is unsurprising that Medieval and Renaissance occultists, alchemists, and sorcerers would adopt the notion that not only was it possible to learn to speak the secret language of the birds, but that in doing so, one would be have obtained fluency in a “perfect language” from which knowledge of the celestial mysteries could be derived.
Why this notion of linguistic perfection? The mysterious and as of yet positively identified 1920’s French alchemist Fulcanelli in his Les Demeures des Philosophes, observed “The language of the birds is a phonetic idiom solely based on assonance. Therefore, spelling, whose very rigour serves as a check for curious minds and which renders unacceptable any speculation realized outside the rules of grammar, is not taken into account”, no doubt deriving his claims from the 15th Century sorcerer and polymath Henry Cornelius Agrippa’s De Occulta Philosophia in which he associates effective divination with appreciation for the language of animals.
Most wonderful is that kind of auguring of theirs, who hear and understand the speeches of animals, in which, as amongst the ancients, Melampus, Tirefias, Thales, and Apollonius the Tyanean, who, as we read, excelled, and whom, they report, had excellent skill in the language of birds; of whom Philostratus and Porphyrius speak, saying, that of old, when Apollonius sat in company amongst his friends, seeing sparrows sitting upon a tree, and one sparrow coming from elsewhere unto them, making a great chattering and noise, and then flying away, all the rest following him, he said to his companions that that sparrow told the rest that an ass, being burdened with wheat, fell down in a hole near the city and that the wheat was scattered upon the ground. Many, being much moved with these words, went to see, and so it was, as Apollonius said, at which they much wondered. Porphyrius, the Platonist, in his third book of sacrifices, saith that there is certainly a swallow language, because every voice of every animal is significative of some passion of its soul, as joy, sadness, or anger, or the like, which voices, it is not so wonderful a thing, could be understood by men conversant about them (Agrippa, 1898, p172-173).
The modern world, loud as it can be, drowns out much birdsong, and when we do pause to listen, we marvel at its beauty, rarely recognizing that the ability to sing is a rare quirk of evolution and very few critters are capable of it. Sure animals make sounds, but bird vocalizations are especially structured and complicated, so complicated in fact that researchers have noted an entire region of songbird brains called the “high vocal center” almost entirely dedicated to singing. Many maintain that birdsong is purely a means of attracting a mate, but Dr. Ofer Tchernichovski, a psychologist researching bird songs “recalls gazing upon a dying robin at the train station with a mix of sadness and sanguine curiosity. At that moment, it certainly wasn’t looking for a mate—and yet it was still singing…It’s as if the bird is somehow comforting itself. It seems to be more encouraged, even in sickness, by singing.”
Would that we had wings, and could change our view of the universe at will, as the birds do, but perhaps more important than that is the fact that humans and birds are among the few creatures that turn to song. Birds have just been doing it a lot longer than us. Renowned educator and early supporter of Mahatma Gandhi, T.L. Vaswani wrote, “A man once dreamt that he could understand the language of the birds, and this is what he heard them say: What is man’s melody?”
Agrippa von Nettesheim, Heinrich Cornelius, 1486?-1535. Three Books of Occult Philosophy Or Magic. Chicago: Hahn & Whitehead, 1898.
Colum, Padraic, 1881-1972. The Children of Odin: the Book of Northern Myths. New York: Macmillan, 1948.
Drummond, W. “On the Science of the Egyptians and Chaldeans”. The Classical Journal v18, 1818.
Frazer, James G. “The Language of Animals”. The Archaeological Review v1. London: D. Nutt, 1888.
Moore, Irene Holbrooke. The Legend of Siegfried, 1917.