Centuries-old tales of man and bird abound
“THEM jackdaws is terrible unpleasant,” said Willy the farm hand in Tipperary.
He was making reference to their habit of nesting in chimneys, and 10 minutes later, after setting fire to the chimney in an attempt to shift the nest, he jumped back into the living room, flames lighting up around his head like a halo.
When I asked if he was burned, his reply was priceless, “Ah no, I’m just swunged a wee trutch.”
This type of close encounter between man and bird has spawned hundreds of tales, many of them completely untrue, but nevertheless they illustrate how closely man and birds have existed over the centuries. Frances Kilvert said in his diary dated December 22, 1874, that the people of Malmesbury were referred to as jackdaws because of the thieving activities of a local.
I would be interested to hear of any ‘local’ bird-lore stories from readers, but in the meantime a few examples from times gone by.
Swallow: Inside their bodies swallows were believed to carry two precious stones – a red one which could cure insanity, and a black one which could bring good luck.
Wheatear: In northern England they were feared for bringing bad luck, while in Orkney they were doubly feared because Islanders believed that toads incubated their eggs.
Magpie: These days the Maggie is reviled for its habit of killing songbirds, however, this dislike could stem from the old days when the magpie was accused of not wearing full mourning clothing at the Crucifixion. In Scotland it was considered such an evil bird, that it was said to carry a drop of the Devil’s blood under its tongue.
Robin: The robin fares better in another Crucifixion legend. It was said to have acquired its red breast when it tried to ease Christ’s pain on the cross and was splashed with a drop of his blood.
Curlew: Sailors dreaded the cry of the curlew, for they believed it was a warning from a drowned friend. In Scotland it was associated with a longbeaked goblin that carried off evil-doers at night.
Swan: A person’s ‘swan-song’ – his final effort – derives from the belief that swans sing only once – just before they die.
Cuckoo: In Wales it was lucky to hear the first call if standing on grass, but bad luck if standing on barren ground.
Some people believed that if you turned your money in your pocket after hearing the cuckoo, and then spat on it, the money would last for the rest of the year.
Some of the stories are easy to explain, for example, the wheatear nesting under rocks probably accounts for the belief that toads incubate the eggs, while the Abbot of Malmesbury was compared to the jackdaw because of the jackdaws’ habit of ‘collecting’ glittering trinkets.
Other stories are a little more difficult to decipher, especially the precious stones in a swallow’s body.
Huginn and Munin were two ravens that flew around the world and brought back stories and information from the Norse God Odin. In the ancient illustration seen here it looks like one of the pair has had his eye out!
Mammal stories are just as plentiful for example.
Sheep were said to face east on Christmas Eve in remembrance of the birth of Christ. It was once believed that if a child with whooping cough was laid down where a sheep had been, the child would be cured.
●● Odin Hrafnar – An ancient illustration showing ravens Huginn and Munin with Norse God Odin. It looks as though one of them has had his eye out
The Laughing Badger Gallery, 99 Platt Street, Padfield, Glossop