Athena's Web Weekly Column

  Week of January 7th - January 13th,  2000

Divine Flight

Columns Archive


   Before the holidays, we were examining pottery fragments dated from four to six thousand BC, during what we would call the Age of Gemini. The two dominant artistic motifs from this period were the serpent and bird goddess; appropriate symbolic images which may have marked the then current circumpolar constellation and vernal equinox, in terra cotta shorthand. We can date these fragments archaeologically, and while they may represent a symbolic notation, there are no writings to which we could turn to better understand what these people actually thought.


Horus was also identified with the Sun


Horus was depicted as the falcon

   In the centuries following Gemini's passing, this tradition of air images continued, but slowly begins to lose its preeminence. Birds are widespread in the Egyptian pantheon, and are so strongly identified with divinity that they are seen as the gods, with falcon, ibis, and vulture some of the most popular examples. The divine will was still interpreted through bird flight for many centuries. Several millennina later, during Greek times, the gods and goddesses have birds identified with them, but are not generally depicted as feathered foul, per se. At Rome during the period of the late Republic, priests specialize in the reading the flight and studying the actions of birds. Homer is familiar with this tradition, and uses it several times in both his works, the Iliad and the Odyssey.

  From Homer's Odyssey*, Book II:

   "Now Zeus who views the wide world sent a sign to him,
launching a pair of eagles from a mountain crest
in gliding flight down the soft blowing wind,
wing-tip to wing-tip quivering taut, companions,
till high above the assembly of many voices
they wheeled, their dense wings beating,
and in havoc dropped on the heads of the crowd-
a deathly omen-

Zeus sent his eagle to abduct Ganymede to Olympus

wielding their talons, tearing cheeks and throats;
then veered away on the right hand through the city.
Astonished, gaping after the birds,
the men felt their hearts flood,
foreboding things to come.

Nefertari wears a vulture headdress

And now they heard the old lord Halitherses,
son of Mastorides, keenest among the old
at reading birdflight into accurate speech:
in his anxiety for them, he rose and said:
"Hear me, Ithakans! Hear what I have to say,
and may I hope to open the suitors' eyes
to the black wave towering over them. Odysseus
will not be absent from his family long:
he is already near, carrying in him
a bloody doom for all these men, and sorrow
for many more on our high seamark, Ithaka.
Let us think how to stop it; let the suitors
drop their suit: they had better, without delay.
I am old enough to know a sign when I see one,
and I say all has come to pass for Odysseus
as I foretold when the Argives massed on Troy,
and he, the great tactician, joined the rest.
My forecast was that after nineteen years,
many blows weathered, all his shipmates lost,
himself unrecognized by anyone,
he would come home.

I see this all fulfilled."

   * Robert Fitzgerald translation

   Naturally, the entire Odyssey becomes the fulfillment of this prophecy, and we can only speculate, but Homer may be drawing upon a tradition already centuries old at this writing.


On a Wing and a Prayer

   During the Age of Gemini, an Air Sign, the 'word' of God was believed to have been revealed through, but not limited to, the flight of birds. Hence, the number of bird and egg images found on archaeological artifacts dating to this period, c. 4,000 to 7,000 BC.

The owl is associatied with Athena, wisdom, and death

   As the Egyptians took over from the older culture, birds became identified with various gods. Horus was depicted as the Falcon, pictured above. Thoth, the Scribe, was an Ibis. The Vulture headdress, pictured above right, is worn by Nefertari, daughter of Ramses II.

   The Greeks, too, related the power of birds to the gods. The bird of Zeus (Jupiter), was the eagle. The raven belonged to Apollo (Sun). Aphrodite (Venus), claimed the dove as her own, while the owl was Athena's. As times changed, these associations slowly faded from the social consciousness, surviving only as myths, legends, and tall tales.


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