Ornithomancy, or taking omens from birds, has long been practiced by many cultures including the Celts. The lore and meanings associated with these omens have survived in modern cultural folklore surrounding birds, although it should be noted that such folklore is a living belief that is also influenced by other factors. Nonetheless for those interested in practicing modern ornithomancy, especially from a cultural perspective, such folklore is essential. In this blog I am going to look at some Irish folklore surrounding birds that are also found in North America.
Ravens (Irish - Fiach Dubh): One of the most well known birds of omen is the raven. Anytime ravens are in the area their activity, calls and direction of flight might be noted and interpreted, as they are generally seen as an ill omen. If a raven arrives just as a new task is being begun it is seen as an omen that the work will not end well, and a raven near a home signifies a death (O hOgain, 1995). A raven hovering over a herd of livestock was thought to indicate disease among the stock, and to steal a raven's egg would result in the death of a human child (Anderson, 2008). On the other hand, should a raven with white on its wings fly to the righthand side of a person and call out it was thought to be a sign of great luck for the person (Anderson, 2008).
Author Glynn Anderson suggests that most Irish lore about the raven is shared by the Norse and reflects viking influence, which may be why the bird is seen simultaneously as a symbol of death and of wisdom, having been associated with Odin and used as symbols on the banners of different Vikings (Anderson, 2008). In Irish myth ravens are associated with several deities including the Morrigan, and Lugh (Anderson, 2008). Ravens are seen as psychopomps who are able to travel between the world of the living and the world of the dead, as well as the Otherworld. They have strong associations as messengers, which may be why they are seen as such powerful birds of omen.
Crows (Irish - Feannóg): Crows are seen with a similar mix of good and bad omens. It was believed that witches, fairies, bansidhe, and Badhbh appeared as hooded crows in Ireland, a belief that was especially strong in county Clare, and were thus seen as unlucky (Anderson, 2008). As with ravens a crow landing on the roof of a house or flying over a home was an omen of death or disaster, but others believe that bad luck comes when crows leave an area (O hOgain, 1995; Anderson, 2008).
Magpies (Irish - Snag Breac): Magpies are thought to be the most unlucky bird to come across (O hOgain, 1995). Also seen as omens of death, they were believed to be the souls of gossiping women; a magpie tapping on a window indicated a death and landing on a wagon (or car) indicated coming news of a death (Anderson, 2008). Because encountering a magpie was always unlucky different actions evolved to mitigate the bad luck, from taking off your hat and bowing to greeting the magpie and asking after its family, although turning around and returning home would also cancel any ill luck (Anderson, 2008). Only in county Mayo were magpies seen as lucky, and seeing a magpie was interpreted as a sign that good news was on its way (Anderson, 2008).
Cuckoo (Irish - Cuach): Cuckoos were seen as omens of good weather (O hOgain, 1995). To hear the first call of cuckoo in spring on the righthand side foretold good luck all summer, but to hear it on the left meant difficult times ahead (Anderson, 2008; O hOgain, 1995). To hear a cuckoo on your wedding day was lucky, but to hear it in the morning before breakfast indicated a lean year to come (Anderson, 2008). Where you first heard the cuckoo in the spring also had great meaning; in a graveyard indicated a coming death, inside a building meant bad luck, and the direction you were looking was where you would travel during the year (Anderson, 2008).
Swallow (Irish - Fáinleog): Killing a swallow is seen to bring very bad luck as is disturbing their nests; it's believed that the swallow can turn the cows milk to blood (Anderson, 2008; O hOgain, 1995). A swallowing flying into your house was good luck, and if swallows built a nest in your barn it was sure to be safe from lightning; seeing a swallow while at sea was a good omen (Anderson, 2008). It was also believed that when you had your hair cut you should be careful in disposing of the clippings, because if a swallow lined her nest with them you would be afflicted with headaches the whole summer (Anderson, 2008).
Swan (Irish - Eala Bhalbh and Eala Ghlórach): It was believed that swans were often actually Otherworldly beings or transformed people, so killing them was prohibited and to do so, even by accident, was very bad luck (O hOgain, 1995; Anderson, 2008). While the feather of a swan was seen as a talisman of fidelity it was believed that the bodies of dead swans should not be touched (Anderson, 2008). In mythology swans were associated with the children of Lir who were cursed into that shape by their step-mother; in several myths deities and people of the sidhe assume the shapes of swans including Angus mac Og, Midhir, and Etain. Seeing a swan in flight was an omen of good luck, and one charm in the Carmina Gadelica invokes a swan to heal a child with the words "Leech of gladness thou/ Sain my little child/ Shield him from death/ Hasten him to health." (Carmichael, 1900).
Robin ( Irish - Spideog): Here in New England Robins are seen as signs of spring coming. In Ireland they represent a happy home, peace, and hope (Anderson, 2008). As such robins were never killed and if caught accidentally were always released; it was even believed once that cats would not kill robins (Anderson, 2008). Anyone who killed a robin would be afflicted with tremors or swollen hands and his cows would give blood with their milk (Anderson, 2008). Some say that the Robin got his red breast by bringing fire to humanity (as did the swallow) while others attribute it to his aiding Jesus on the cross or bringing water into Hell to give to suffering souls (Anderson, 2008). When the first robin of spring was seen a wish could be made and as long as it was completed before the robin took flight it would come true (Anderson, 2008).
Robins may be associated with the god Bel/Bile/Belenos.
Wren (Irish - Dreoilín): In the old traditions the wren and the robin were said to be married, and Anderson suggests that this may reflect an older belief that the two birds shared the year, with the wren representing darkness and winter while the robin symbolized light and summer (Anderson, 2008). The wren was a sacred bird to the Druids who sought omens from its song and saw wrens as messengers of the gods; the goddess Clíona was said to take the form of a wren (Anderson, 2008). Possibly due to this wrens were demonized by the church and hunted on Saint Stephen's Day, December 26th; although it may also relate to an older pagan practice of killing wrens at this time to symbolize the death of winter which they represented (Anderson, 2008). Since wrens were associated with winter and the gods of winter I may see them as related to the Cailleach Bhur, although that is purely my own opinion. Oddly folk belief prohibits killing wrens or disturbing their nests at any other time of year (Anderson, 2008). The wren is said to be the king of the birds, after using cunning to win a contest among all the birds of Ireland; it was decided that whatever bird flew highest would be the king so the wren hid on the back of the eagle and at the height of the eagles flight leaped up to win the crown.
Next time we'll look at eagles, hawks, owls, doves, and more...
O hOgain, D., (1995). Irish Superstitions.
Anderson, G., (2008) Birds of Ireland: facts, folklore & history
Carmichael, A., (1900) Carmina Gadelica