Athena's Web Weekly Column

  Week of January 14th - January 20th,  2000

Celestial Confirmation

Columns Archive


   Last week we looked at the divine flight of birds from Homer's perspective, circa 800 BC, one of several avian episodes from the Iliad and Odyssey. When two of Penelope's suitors consider murdering Odysseus's son, the sighting of eagles cause them to change their minds. In the Iliad, Priam ponders leaving the safety of Troy's walls in a bid to go to Achilles and, as an unarmed old man, ask for his son's body back.

   Eagles confirm the enterprise.


Birds aren't always divine. Here, Odysseus is tortured by the Song of the Sirens

   We look back to Homer so often because this is western civilization's first epic work. It represents a time capsule which captures the thoughts, sentiments, and customs of the people of the time; but how old are the traditions it records?

  The flight of birds being used to reflect the divine will was not limited to the Greeks. The Romans also ascertained heaven's will in this way, as did many Mediterranean cultures. Today, we feel it very important to separate church and state. The reverse was true in antiquity. Before the social disintegration of the late Republic, a fear of heaven, and a desire to work with the will of the gods, was held in high social esteem. Both civil administration and military affairs took auspices to ascertain Jupiter's will through omens. These auspices, originally denoting the observation of birds in flight, gradually came to assume other methods of divination, including lightning, portents, the reading of entrails, and feeding of the sacred chickens.

   From Livy's History of Rome, I xviii. 6-10;


The Harpies- 'Snatchers' of children

  "Being summoned to Rome, Numa commanded that, just as Romulus had obeyed the augural omens in building his city and assuming royal power, so too in his own case the gods should be consulted. Accordingly an augur conducted him to the citadel and caused him to sit down on a stone, facing the south. The augur seated himself on Numa's left, having his head covered, and holding in his right hand the crooked staff without a knot which they call a lituus.

Greek Pitcher with rows of bird motifs,
9th century BC

  Then, looking out over the city and the country beyond, he prayed to the gods, and marked off the heavens by a line from east to west, designating as "right" the regions to the south, as "left" those to the north, and fixing in his mind a landmark opposite to him and as far away as the eye could reach; next shifting the crook to his left hand, and laying his right on Numa's head, he uttered the following prayer:

  "Father Jupiter, if it is divine will that this man, Numa Pompilius, whose head I am touching, be king in Rome, do thus exhibit to us unmistakable signs within those limits which I have set."

  He then specified the auspices which he desired should be sent, and upon their appearance Numa was declared king, and so descended from the augural station."

  While Numa, Rome's second king after Romulus, ruled at the turn of the seventh and eighth century BC, Livy did not write these words until the end of the first century BC. Is Livy accurately reporting what took place 700 years earlier? Does the origin of this avian tradition stem back as far as the Age of Gemini, some four or five thousand years earlier still? It's hard to say, but everywhere we look, there seems to be a credence for, and belief in, the divine endorsement of the flight of birds, and their connection with the will of the gods.

  Today we live in an age where each Spring brings with it a new vogue in fashion in clothing, cars, and video games; in short, new trends fostered by commerce. Even the previous year is looked upon as 'old' and outdated. It is, perhaps, hard for us to conceive of a time when tradition, especially amongst an agrian society, would look with a veneration and reverence to that which had gone on for so many centuries before.


Birds of a Feather

   Each Age brings with it a new social consciousness towards life. This 'hour hand' of heaven also defines our reflection of the divine, and this theme can be traced by the predominate social patterns of any given time. During Gemini, the historical record is barely visible, residing, as it does, in the early morning mists of our awareness. The archaeological record supplies us some clues from which we can attempt to peice together a few of their beliefs.

   During the Age of Gemini, an air sign ruled by Mercury, bird motifs and dual headed figures are predominate. There is even a clay image that has come to be dubbed, the 'thinker'. As a sign of communication, we can only speculate that, with the Gemini-Sagittarius polarity at work, society focused on a communication with the divine, a mental investigation of the search for truth in the heavens above, and an endorsement of these thoughts through the flight of birds. Naturally, this is only a portion of the ideology of the times, but it was a predominate portion.

   During the Age of Taurus, a reverence for nature, and of the earth, begins to emerge, especially in the fertile river valleys of the Nile, Indus and Tigris/Euphrates regions. While the air themes no longer hold predominance, they do continue to be honored under the larger wing of Mother Nature; hence, while birds such as the falcon, ibis, and vulture as seen as divinity, so are other animals, such as the crocidile, hippopotamus, lion, and most of all, of course, the bull and cow.

   During the Age of Aries, these nature themes begin to give way to 'man in his own image', and humanity begins to perceive of divinity as a reflection of 'self'. Divinity takes on a more human form, either in the polytheistic form of the gods of the Greeks and Romans, or in the monothesitic form of the Jews and the Old Testament.


Bird Drinking Cup c. 725 BC

   Homer and Numa are dated to the 7th and 8th centuries BC, which is roughly contemporary with the ceramic peices shown here. The pitcher (above) is dated from the 9th century BC. Notice the three full rows of birds, together with the dominant motif, which alternates a bird with a four leaf flower or plant.

   The drinking cup at right dates to the 8th century BC.

   While birds are no longer the predominate themes they were in the 5th and 6th millennina, their influence is still strong throughout the Mediterranean, and stories are plentiful. It was Juno's sacred geese which warned the Romans of the Gauls approach at night during the sack of Rome, while Harpies, or 'snatchers', were ill winds personified as birds strong enough to make off with children.

   (to be continued)


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