Animals and Nature: Cultural Myths, Cultural Realities

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Rachel: It does not directly educate people about the role of birds in a healthy ecosystem, except in instances such as those mentioned above. However, throughout the book we celebrate everything that is most admired in birds, such as their beauty, voices, and extraordinary migration feats in a bid to illustrate how important and valued our relationship with and respect for birds should be.

We also relate how misguided beliefs, superstitions, or disregard for anything beyond their valuable feathers have damaged certain species and continue to do so today.

Video – Family and kinship

I hope that our book underlines the long-standing importance of birds to our cultural identity, and the respect we have long held for them, even those that we fear or mistrust. David: My favorite species in your book is the Hoopoe, a rather splendid bird familiar in several parts of the world, including my native South Africa, where it features in African folkore. What species would you choose as a favorite — and why? It is an exquisite little bird with a lovely high-pitched song that Vivaldi sought to imitate in a flute concerto. Their beauty, voices, and flitting flight make me happy. Legend holds them as storm-bringers and emblems of freedom and courage, while the most recent scientific research has uncovered a fascinating quirk in their chromosomes that makes them fantastically long-lived—potentially almost immortal.

Marianne Taylor is a birdwatcher, dragonfly-finder and mammal-seeker from Kent, England. She has long been interested in myths and legends and has greatly enjoyed exploring how avian traits have influenced cultural beliefs across the world.

In Changing Planet. Tags David Maxwell Braun. The National Geographic Society is an impact-driven global nonprofit organization that pushes the boundaries of exploration, furthering understanding of our world and empowering us all to generate solutions for a healthy, more sustainable future for generations to come. Our ultimate vision: a planet in balance. Skip to content. Changing Planet Human Journey Wildlife.

Delving into cultural myths, tales and beliefs about wild birds November 8, Click the cover for more details about the book. To find out what the authors studied and learned, we interviewed them via email: David Braun : How did you come to collaborate on this book and what made you come up with the idea?

2. Our culture

European Goldfinch David: Birds have apparently inspired societies in in every epoch and in every place. Rachel: At least six come to mind. That birds flying between the earth and sky are associates or messengers of deities. Similarly that certain birds, especially doves, represent the souls of the departed. It persists today. Swans—the epitome of tranquil, elegant beauty—are the subject of swan maiden legends in the mythology of countries as far-flung as Iceland, Finland, Sri Lanka, Iran, Australia, and Indonesia.

This is commonly the wren but also, in Native American mythology, the Wood Thrush Hylocichla mustelina.


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It may be inspired by natural behavior; small birds mobbing a raptor that gets close to their nests, by flying at its head; eagles lack the agility to counterattack. That black birds—especially corvids—are evil, think ravens sniffing out the dead, plucking out their eyes , or crows and rooks both omens of death in various cultures. The magpie, being considered half black though in reality an iridescent blue black and white was traditionally cursed for failing to go into full mourning at the Crucifixion but could be good or bad in English folklore, depending on numbers one for sorrow, two for mirth, etc.

It was a bird of the underworld in Germany and ridden by witches in Scandinavia. Carrion Crow David: Why do birds frighten so many people, even today? In Europe where the belief was most prevalent, the birds arrive and breed in spring, establishing their nests on roofs and other high, prominent places where their meticulous parenting is easily observed. Spring is also associated with general fecundity, when human births were possibly more numerous, roughly nine months after the summer solstice, a traditional festival celebrating fertility.

The belief was given fresh prominence in the 19 th century by the somewhat macabre Hans Christian Andersen story The Storks , but also served to disguise the facts of life at a time of great prudery especially in Victorian England.

The association, however, is much older, as in ancient Greece the Little Owl Athene noctua was the bird of Athene, the much loved goddess of wisdom. In general, however, the owl image is more ominous; fear and dread of the birds is deep-rooted not only in Europe but in African, American and many Asian cultures. Vultures appear to be victims of their appearance and carrion-eating habits. Their often bald heads, beady eyes, ragged wings, hooked bills, and mighty claws have long been associated with fear and death, which some suggest made them the prototype of the traditional witch figure.

Curiously eagles, which belong to the same family Accipitridae as 16 Old World vultures, have a very different image. Vultures, too, were viewed more favorably as godlike figures and spiritual messengers by the Mayans, while across the world in Asia they played and still play an important role in Zoroastrian and Buddhist sky burials, devouring the flesh of the dead. Please do not email or send us your credit card information directly.

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Animals and Nature : Cultural Myths, Cultural Realities by Rod Preece (1999, Hardcover)

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