Talk abstract details

Heavenly Messengers: The Role of Birds in the Cosmographies and the Cosmovisions of Ancient Cultures
Michael A. Rappenglück


Birds played an important role in the cosmographies and cosmovisions of ancient cultures all over the world. Evidences are given by monuments, artifacts, symbols, myths, and rituals. Since the time of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers people studied in great detail the body, the reproduction by eggs, the behavior, and the phenology of birds. These observations gave the basics for the association of certain species, e.g. migratory birds, raptors, water birds, songbirds, ratites, and others to special celestial phenomena and bodies. In the traditions of the people, illustrated by the archaeological, ethnological, and mythological records, celestial birds represent single stars, star clusters, and certain constellations, which inter alia refer to seasonality, peculiar points in time-reckoning, specific cardinal points, and verticality (the Zenith, the celestial pole North/South, the circumpolar area of the starry sky). Again and again the animals are related to the highest cosmic strata and topped on the zenithal or polar world axis, e.g. depicted in the motif of the bird sitting on the world tree. Frequently heavenly birds, located within the Milky Way, are regarded to be of peculiar significance. Moreover some kinds of birds are attributed to the sun and her course (diurnal / annual). The celestial birds are closely linked to conceptions of cosmic power and creation, cyclic time and archaic calendars, orientation in space, divination, shamanistic ecstasy, and the properties of the soul. They typify an essentially part of archaic cosmologies and cosmogonies. The presentation categorizes different motifs of the celestial birds based on the facts given by the biology (including chronobiology) and ethology of the species, related to specific astronomical phenomena, archaeological and ethnological records, and the mythologies delivered by people of different epochs all over the world. Drawing the attention to a peculiar rock picture in the Lascaux cave it is suggested that the topic of the heavenly birds linked to certain astronomical conceptions can already be found in the Upper Paleolithic time.