Words Of Birds As Psychopomps
by Ian Reid
- View Ian Reid 's Biography
Ian Reid is a writer based in Perth. He is an Adjunct Professor in English and Literary Studies at the University of Western Australia.
Words Of Birds As Psychopomps
Psychopomp? The term may be unfamiliar to most people today (except perhaps in a few corners of contemporary music — as the name of a Danish electro-industrial band, or a song title by Canadian rock group The Tea Party, or a pop album by Japanese Breakfast), but the psychopomp figure is long established and widely recognised in the myths and religions of many cultures.
The word itself, which entered the English language in the mid-nineteenth century, derives from the Greek psychopompos, meaning a conductor of souls. Recurring in ancient literary sources and depicted on vases and funerary art from the classical period of Graeco-Roman culture onwards, psychopomps escort the dead or dying to an afterworld. In the western tradition, one of the best known of these liminal guides is the border-crossing god Hermes, the only Olympian deity able to traverse the realms of earth, sea and sky and also to lead spirits of the deceased to Hades. Mercury, the Roman counterpart of Hermes, came to be regarded as having equivalent attributes, and so the two gods are almost indistinguishable iconographically.
Hermes and Mercury could travel speedily between the mortal and post-mortal spheres with the help of winged golden sandals. This is a significant detail, as we shall see. Reference to the sandals of Hermes having wings attached (pteróenta pédila or ptinopǽdilæ) appears in several early written sources, from Homer's Iliad and Odyssey in the eighth century BC to the Shield Of Heracles a couple of centuries later and the Orphic Hymn to Hermes (uncertain date: third century BC to second century AD). The same image is rendered visually on Attic vases of the early fifth century BC, such as a lekythos picture attributed to the artist known as the Tithonus Painter (Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY).
Those winged sandals exemplify a common traditional association between psychopomp figures and the physical attributes of certain birds, especially birds of omen. The hawk, for instance, was sacred to Hermes (Aelian 12.4), who sometimes turned humans into hawks. Ancient symbolic links of this kind probably emerged to some extent from the practice of ornithomancy, or augury as the Romans called it, divining omens from the movements and sounds of birds. When a priestly augur interpreted such signs, the practice was known as "taking the auspices" — from auspex, literally meaning an observer of birds. Our English word "auspicious" derives from it. A few birds were thought to have special importance for the purposes of augury, particularly the oscines, those notable for their distinctive vocal qualities, such as hooting owls, cawing crows and croaking ravens.
Avian associations are by no means confined to Greek and Roman psychopomps. Old Norse mythology provides another well-known case: the flying Valkyries chose slain warriors who had shown exceptional heroism, and led them to Valhalla (the "hall of the fallen"). Valkyries are popularly imagined as riding through the air on horseback, as in the Wagnerian version of these figures, but literary sources from medieval Scandinavia such as the Skáldskarpamál section of the Prose Edda (Sturluson) and the lay known as Helgakvitha Hjörvarthssonar in the Poetic Edda (Bellows) often depict them as accompanied by ravens. Of particular interest is the ninth-century skaldic poem called Hrafnsmál, meaning "Raven's Song" (Fulk), which largely consists of a conversation between a Valkyrie and a raven and which begins by emphasising the point that the psychopomp understands the language of birds: es fugls rǫdd kunni. The appeal of this twelve-centuries-old poem remains strong in our own time: a highly popular Norwegian musician has reworked some stanzas from it for the video game Assassin's Creed Valhalla (Selvik).
The link between access to avian language and intimations of mortality recurs elsewhere in legendary tales from northern Europe, figuring saliently for instance in an episode concerning the hero Sigurd that is recounted in several thirteenth-century Norse texts such as the Fáfnismál, the Thidrekssaga, the Völsungasaga, and the Prose Edda. Details of the story vary in different sources, but all versions record that Sigurd, after tasting the blood of a dragon he has slain, can understand the words of birds, learning from them that his life is in danger. He escapes; and later, as instructed by the birds, makes his way to a place where he encounters a Valkyrie. Just as Valkyries sometimes appear with or in the form of birds, so it is too with prophetic Celtic war-goddesses, who were also harbingers of doom (Donahue; Davidson 65-66). The Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf contains similar imagery in which bird language makes humans aware of approaching death, as for instance in the portent that "the raven winging / darkly over the doomed will have news" (wonna hrefn / fús ofer faégum fela reordian — lines 3024-25). Pareles remarks that this passage represents "a profound moment of interspecies connection."
There is no need to multiply examples from the cultures of Classical Antiquity or the Middle Ages in order to reinforce the general observation that "birds are routinely seen as portents of impending calamity and death, while they are also often thought to bear away or steal spirits of the dead, sometimes even embodying those very spirits themselves" (Moreman). The same idea appears across many mythologies. In the traditional lore of Indigenous Australians, for instance, black cockatoos are said to accompany the dying on a journey to an afterlife (Mountford). More noteworthy is the fact that the language of birds, imaginatively apprehended, often serves as the medium through which the imminence of death becomes apparent, not only in ancient literary sources (Nozedar) but also in the continuing oral traditions of various cultures. In Australia, for instance, the distinctive scream of bush stone-curlews seems to be the source of their reputation among people of the Tiwi Islands as harbingers of death (Gosford). Similarly the masked lapwing, generally known in this country as the spur-wing plover, has an uncanny staccato nocturnal cry that some traditional custodians of the land associate with the approach of death — alluded to in the final lines of one of my earliest published poems (Reid), which describes someone's drug-induced hallucination merging with a summons from that bird:
a spur-wing stammers out his high-strung plaint
boding in legend some final passage.
In folk traditions depicting psychopomp figures as eloquent birds, there are particular species that tend to recur internationally: "Across Europe and beyond, the folklore of death is rich with avian legends and alongside the raven, the owl features in innumerable stories that associate it with darkness and tragedy. In the case of impending disaster being foretold by birdsong at night, this is likely due to the eerie, far from melodic cry of the nightbird" (Curzon).
These associations also find their way into modern fiction. A notable case is the 1967 novel I Heard the Owl Call My Name, where the main character's pivotal experience, summarised in the book's title, is a foretelling of his imminent death. Some other twentieth-century works take the avian psychopomp theme into the genre of horror stories, as in H.P. Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror" and Stephen King's The Dark Half (discussed by Emberson).
In contrast to what is evoked in those and similar nightmare tales, which feature birds of ill omen, my own particular interest is in benign psychopomps that can purportedly bring auspicious messages to soothe the dying — messages of continuity and vitality. For anyone whose belief system does not include notions of a personal afterlife, there may be some compensatory comfort in recognising that other lives, including avian lives, continue to flourish as one's own comes to its close.
The foregoing discussion of traditional links between birds, intimations of mortality, and psychopomps provides a context for presenting a couple of new poems of my own, which reflect two sides of the relationship between birdsong and human response with particular reference to the approach of death: the aspect of inscrutability and the aspect of heartening communication.
An eloquent essay by David Haskell urges us to develop "a practice of cross-species listening as a bridge to kinship," remarking that "for millennia, the language of birds has called us to cross divides" — but he goes on to acknowledge that "it is hard to discern what is meant in this speech of our winged cousins" (Haskell). In the first of the following poems, my particular emphasis is on our inability to understand whether "their lilting lingo, cryptic to us" may sometimes "distil grief" at the end of life. Through its use of half-rhymes or slant-rhymes, the verse form I have chosen here hints at this lack of perfect concord between avian and human language.
The countless feathered corpses: why
do we seldom see any of them? Where
do all those birds go to die? On a day
as fiercely hot as this, scorching the air,
there's not a single avian note,
not a chirp, quick cheep or squawk
or even any clearing of the throat,
though I know winged things do lurk
in garden crannies, wherever they're able
to shelter behind shady walls
and if one of them, stricken, falls
from its hiding place, dead as a pebble,
who carries it away?
Birds, we guess, have no funereal rites,
no mourning period, no sting of
sorrow, no memory of lost mates.
Perhaps we're wrong. Their lilting lingo,
cryptic to us — could it distil grief?
This morning's magpie trill, filling
our backyard at first light: what if
it was an elegy for the fallen?
Which of us can say?
Might birds, for their part, feel a sense
of puzzlement about where we go
finally, thinking humans show
no sign of grief, sing no laments,
just get carried away?
The questions on which the poem turns are subverting conventional representations of the psychopomp figure, in that the birds here are not conducting human souls across the threshold to an afterlife but are — conceivably — giving voice to ceremonies of mourning for their own avian kin. Some ornithologists believe that birds can indeed feel grief at a companion's death (Barber, Cudmore). Yet this possibility remains speculative here, since human and non-human beings are ultimately mysterious to each other.
However, in meditating on mutual bafflement, "Reciprocal Mysteries" evokes only one aspect of the relationship between avian language and human understanding. The poem that follows, in contrast, imagines birdsong in a private garden bringing comfort to a dying woman as her sight fades. Her serene mood at this terminal stage rests implicitly on an intuition that, even if a person cannot understand what words of birds may signify to the songsters themselves, there is something consoling in the recognition that life, expressed finally in "a honey-eater's feeding call," goes on busily around and beyond the dying woman.
Like most contemporary poets, I seldom use a highly regulated rhythm, rhyme scheme or stanza structure; but here I do so. My main reason for choosing in this case the strict verse form of iambic tetrameter lines set in quatrains rhymed abba is that it follows the example of one of the most famous long poems of the Victorian period, "In Memoriam." Tennyson's great elegiac poem established a strong link between its particular taut verse pattern and its theme of meditating on death. "In Memoriam" came to my mind not only because of its thematic focus but also because it mentions birdsong more than a score of times, mostly in a mellifluous tone of consolation — e.g. "to sink to peace, like birds" (stanza 34), "Wild bird, whose warble, liquid sweet..." (88), "the low love-language of the bird" (102). (Tennyson's attunement to the words of birds is evident in many of his other poems, and would be worth separate analysis. It produced such memorable phrases as the onomatopoeic "moan of doves in immemorial elms.")
Cast in the "In Memoriam" mould, my poem "Conducted into Darkness" imagines a woman for whom, during the final phase of her life, human companionship is no longer available, eyesight is fading, and darkness is closing in. A domestic garden soundscape serves to alleviate her solitude — a soundscape created by various backyard birds, along with bees and frogs. In her last moments, their cacophony has subsided; and instead of a lugubrious or sinister summons such as an avian psychopomp might traditionally utter, the chirpy tone of a honeyeater's language seems to sing soothingly to her.
Conducted into darkness
Now, more and more, she feels her days
are leaking colour, losing shape.
There's no reprieve, nor any escape
from the approaching final phase.
A gradual dwindling of her sight
isn't the sole diminishment.
She wonders where her vigour went
and why she's restless through the night.
For some years now she's been alone.
From time to time he'll cross her mind
but bit by bit she's grown resigned
to living quietly on her own,
the sole custodian of her plight.
Friendships have simply lapsed somehow.
The garden brings her solace now
despite the waning of its light.
A seat's well placed so she can peer
into the trees where small birds flit
and though she makes out some of it
fine details are no longer clear.
Having landscaped it all, she's proud
of nooks and flowerbeds she once made
but as she watches them, things fade
and blur like distant wisps of cloud.
Yet resonance remains. The song
of honey-eaters rides the breeze
and blossoms are abuzz because
bees pleasure them all summer long.
Parading in their party hats,
pert parrots verge on parody,
with no pretence at melody
as they engage in strident spats.
Loudmouth crows are bully boys,
magpies are comparing notes,
there's no catch in froggy throats —
the whole shebang is full of noise.
But as the sun slides to the west,
their raucousness subsides, and peace
enters the garden. Her release
approaches gently, taps her wrist.
Eyes close. Her pulse fades to a crawl
like music with a dying fall.
She smiles at hearing, last of all,
a honey-eater's feeding call.
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