Because birds seem so common and exist everywhere, we often take them for granted and even consider them part of the landscape. However, these wonderful creatures can provide us with a simple yet powerful way to stay in tune with the natural world and its seasonal markers. In addition to maintaining this connection, birds can help us access different levels of energy and awareness no matter where we are, even in the concrete canyons of Manhattan.
Birds can help us tap into the wisdom of the ages, too, because of the incredibly long spiritual relationship we have had with them. Associating birds with spirit is something that people of many faiths have done for thousands of years. Through the millennia, birds have represented freedom and the immortal soul, and have served as messengers of gods and goddesses as well as helpers to shaman. Although the symbolic roles of birds have evolved over time, they have been consistently associated with spirit and divinity.
In the past, birds were regarded as especially mysterious. They seemed to suddenly appear and disappear into the clouds as though they held power over the sky. Because of this, birds were recognized as radically different from other creatures that were earth- or water-bound. Birds could go where humans could not, travel to unknown regions, return with the morning sun, or make their presence known when darkness fell. In addition, the migration of some birds gave rise to their reputations as heralds of particular seasons and keepers of the rhythms of nature.
Because they can fly, birds were linked with supernatural forces. Throughout the world, birds figure largely in shamanism as a symbol of magical flight. They also served as guides and guardians to help the shaman navigate between the worlds. In some traditions, shamans were believed to shape-shift into birds. Feathers, widely used for clothing and tools, provided the shaman with the transformative power needed to enter the spirit world.
While many animals were linked with divination practices, birds were very closely associated with it. Bird divination encompassed several methods, including observing them in flight, listening for their songs or other noises, and the study of entrails. Some forms of bird divination continued to be practiced through the centuries and eventually melded into folklore.
Myths about birds serving as messengers come from cultures around the world. However, the avian highway was believed to be a two-way thoroughfare: birds brought messages and blessings from on high and were believed to carry human wishes and prayers to deities.
Hindu, Sumerian, and Egyptian sky gods were associated with high-flying birds such as hawks, eagles, and vultures. Flying high where weather originated linked these birds with the power to control these formidable forces. As a result, the attribute of mighty, weather-ruling power was adopted for gods of many pantheons. Zeus, Thor, and others were associated with storms, thunder, and lightning. In addition, the Babylonian storm god Zu was represented as a large bird. The Hindu Garuda, a wind deity in the form of an eagle, was believed to stoke the power of storms by flapping his wings.
Of course, goddesses were also associated with birds. The very ancient Egyptian figurines called Nile goddesses originally had beaked faces and upraised arms suggesting flight. In addition, Isis was often portrayed with wings on her arms. According to legend, it was in the form of a bird that she breathed life into her dead husband Osiris.
The Sumerian Inanna was known as the Queen of Heaven and Earth, and as such she was associated with the creatures of the sky. Later goddesses such as Aphrodite, Athena, the Celtic triple goddesses, Minerva, Venus, and many others were also associated with birds; sometimes several types of birds.
However, long before these gods and goddesses hitched their power to avian creatures, birds were even more intimately associated with the very ancient Great Goddess. In fact, for a span of almost twenty-five thousand years the Divine was portrayed as a woman/bird fusion, the Bird Goddess.
While many creatures represented her power, the bird was the earliest and most pervasive. Of course, the other highly important creature associated with the Goddess was the snake. However, while religious zealots bent on extinguishing Goddess worship made the snake into something abhorrent, the power of the bird was too strong and appealing. And so these creatures of the air remained the ultimate epiphany of the Divine.
The Great Goddess was and is considered to be immanent, her presence felt everywhere: sky, earth, and sea. As her most fundamental epiphany, birds are everywhere, too. They exist in every type of ecosystem and have been witness to all the civilizations that have come and gone.
Worshipped for so many millennia, the Bird Goddess still holds meaning for us today. While the concept of maiden, mother, crone is a nice way to relate the Goddess with a woman's life stages (or son, father, sage for men), it does not encompass the profound mysteries of life, death/regeneration, and spirit as did the Great Goddess. These three fundamental aspects of the Goddess are interwoven creating the dynamic energy of cyclic time that turns the great wheel of existence. Intimately connected with all three aspects, birds can bring us into closer communion with this most ancient and powerful Goddess.
In addition to strengthening a spiritual connection with the Goddess, we can call on birds for support in ritual, spells, and divination. Working with the wisdom and magic of birds helps to awaken our intuition and psychic abilities, and to raise awareness of the subtle energies around us.
Once you begin to work with bird magic you may develop a special connection with a particular type of bird. More than a totem or familiar, a "bird guide" may stay with you forever or a new one may come into your life as you change and grow. In addition to a special bird guide, others serve as messengers that make temporary contact to bring or help us interpret information or to deal with particular situations.
On whatever level you choose to work with birds, they will connect you with the Goddess, the natural world, and all the wise folk who have gone before us. Getting started on the path of bird magic is as simple as getting to know your local birds. Even the most humble of birds has a great deal of knowledge to share. Birds can enhance our celebrations of sabbats and esbats, and help us understand more fully the Great Goddess and the deities who came later.
These amazing creatures of the air can open a whole new world for us in nature and within ourselves. While information from birds can sometimes be loud and clear, it often comes softly like the whispering flutter of wings as the Bird Goddess speaks to us.
Sandra Kynes (Portland, ME) is a member of the Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids and the author of seventeen books, including Star Magic, Llewellyn's Complete Book of Correspondences, Mixing Essential Oils for Magic, ...