Long before tarot, runes, I Ching, or throwing the bones, divination was applied through signs in nature. A sophisticated system of reading these signs was known as augury during the Roman empire, and it focused entirely on birds – their flight, how they perched, the way they ate or drank, the type of bird, the entrails of the bird when gutted, etc. A form of augury is still practiced in some cultures, and its origin likely goes back far into prehistory. Roman augury was a male priesthood, but I cannot find information on whether this was the case elsewhere. My guess is that augury was a non-gender specific skill, taught to everyone like reading and writing today.
Stone Age people would have closely observed bird behavior along waterways in the course of their daily activities. Even before permanent settlements humans camped along rivers or, in arid regions, moved between waterholes. Like humans, many species of birds prefer to congregate around water. Long legged fish-eating birds like herons hunt in shallow water. Webbed foot geese dive for tubers along the banks of ponds and slow moving rivers. Pelicans eat baby ducks as well as fish. Loons travel significant distance underwater as they hunt. In the tall trees eagles and osprey nest, swooping to catch small fish in their talons.
In Language of the Goddess Marija Gimbutas devotes considerable attention to bird imagery, particularly that of water birds. She identifies forty-four symbols repeatedly associated with ornithoid goddesses and objects from the Vinca culture, which thrived in southeastern Europe in the fifth millennium B.C.E. Gimbutas believes that the ornithoid figures and pottery found at Neolithic archaeological sites represent bird goddesses. Quite a few of these are obviously water birds, identified as such by long legs, long necks, webbed feet or water imagery. Usually it is impossible to identify the species.
Despite the omnipresence of water birds in Neolithic art, these animals are not given much significance in shamanic writings or in song or literature. Legends and myths about water birds are not often collected or recounted, although they certainly exist. In popular culture it is the fierce birds – the eagles, hawks, owls falcons – that have the most traction. These birds are superb hunters, and in the case of eagles and falcons have even been trained to hunt for humans. Ravens have a prominent place in many shamanic systems because as carrion eaters they are associated with death, and probably also because they are fierce.
Some water bird goddesses have survived while their association with their birds has almost withered from popular consciousness. The Germanic goddess Frigga wears heron feathers, archaic Greek pottery shows Aphrodite riding a goose, and name of the Russian Baba Yaga is related to the word for pelican.
What was the significance in early times of winged creatures? Was it related to instruction in song or dance? Did it relate to nesting, housing construction, and the miracle of life growing inside the egg? Did the plethora of avian activity around water contribute to the conception of water as the source of life?
And did it related to augury? Birds would have been a sign to nomadic people that fish was plentiful. Bird calls would have alerted humans, like other mammals, to the approach of predators. People would have looked to the behavior of birds for clues about upcoming weather patterns (as they still do).
For an element in the environment to have divinatory properties, it must possess a quality of apparent randomness or unpredictability. If on a walk through my village I pass an old maple, this is not a “sign,” because I was fully aware that I would encounter the tree. However, if I have a flat tire on an unfamiliar road and my car stops beside a tall maple, I might indeed see this as a sign. Most nondomestic animals meet the qualifications for imparting divinatory wisdom, but birds provide the more robust opportunities. The number of birds, the direction from which they fly, where they land or perch, the pattern in which they fly or swim – the possibilities are endless. One pattern that is more interesting with birds than most other animals is the pattern of footprints. Most mammal tracks are linear, either straight or meandering, telling the story of where the animal discovered food or scented a predator. The tracks lead to a tree or a waterway or a substrate such as rock where they disappear. Bird tracks are more mysterious. They appear and disappear for no apparent reason, sometimes showing only a few tracks, sometimes representing a convocation, often telling a story that is challenging to discern. Water birds live close to sand and mud substrates that can show a variety of species tracks even in warm and dry weather.
It is likely that the old augurs would have studied the messages of birds on the ground as well as in the sky. While the hunter would have tracked the physical bird, the auger would have tracked the message left by the bird. Did humans, with birds as teachers, learn to read symbols before they began to write them?
I believe it is important, in re-membering the wisdom of the Goddess, to look not only at the old artifacts, but to study – really study – the elements of nature they reflect. All signs lead back to the planet on which the live.
Gimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989.
Perowne, Stewart. Roman Mythology. London: Hamlyn, 1969.