by Cathy Douglas
People have found omens as long as they’ve seen patterns and correspondences — it’s one of the traits that makes us human. Both science and religion are based on patterns that evolve through continued observation. And in their better moments, both religion and science might agree that real wisdom is less about “true” and “false” than about analyzing the observed facts in a reasonable way. Nowadays, as environmental awareness increases, observation of nature may be at the same time the most ancient and the most timely form of spirituality.
Much has been written about new age totem or spirit animals, and there are a lot of interesting and sometimes downright weird stories about bird augury in ancient history. (If you’d like a sample of the latter, see the footnote below.) For a change, I thought it might be interesting to take a more hands-on approach, and look at how we may interpret the bird sightings and patterns in everyday life.
Simple Bird Omens: One very basic divination technique is to simply spend time outside and pay attention to what you see and hear. A lot of bird activity flows in a predictable way through the seasons, and while this activity is interesting in its own right, it’s not really a sign or omen with any personal meaning. At times, though, you may notice a bird someplace you wouldn’t expect it, or doing something it wouldn’t usually do. These are the sightings that may carry a personal message.
Not too long ago, this happened to me in a very memorably way. My late husband was always a handyman, and the workshop behind our house was his favorite place. Not long after he died, I was back there sorting through some of his tools and other belongings, when a little finch flew in. This surprised me, because it was the dead of winter and not many birds were around. The finch circled the room, confused and unable to find its way, and I was afraid it would hurt itself running into walls and windows. Finally it found the door and burst out into the sky. I took this as an omen about my husband’s soul — that after a life that included a certain amount of frustration and difficulty, his soul’s time for freedom had come, and he had finally found his way.
Envoys of the Gods: Birds have a special place in nature because flight allows them to travel freely between heaven and earth. Some Greek philosophers argued that if the gods exist, they must care about the affairs of men, and if that was a case they must have some way of communicating. This tells us something about the spiritual nature of birds.
Taking a modern spiritual perspective, this means that if you ask for help from a god, goddess, or the universe, the answer may come to you in the form of a bird. You would not simply be watching nature, you would also be finding answers in her richness — sort of like picking an oracle card out of the sky!
After giving thanks, take some time to meditate and think. Many natural signs have more than one layer of meaning.
Folklore: There must be at least one rhyme interpreting the appearance of birds for every county in England. Here’s one about various black birds, such as rooks, magpies, crows or ravens:
One is for bad news, two is for mirth.
Three is a wedding, four for a birth.
Five is for riches, six is a thief,
Seven a journey, eight is for grief.
Nine is a secret, ten is for sorrow,
Eleven is love and twelve is joy on the morrow.
I don’t know if there’s much truth to any of this, but it’s kind of fun to try out.
Not all bird lore is fun and games, though. Because they cross the heavens, birds have often been seen as omens of death. Not as the cause of death, but as a soul-bearer or psychopomp; for example, a mysterious bird perched on the house was often interpreted as an unearthly being, waiting to carry soul to its new home. But as with all nature symbolism, it’s important here not to jump to conclusions based on other people’s stories. For one thing, symbolic meanings are neither inflexible nor infallible; something that had meaning for one culture might not translate well into another. Besides, the stories handed down with the most enthusiasm tend to be the creepiest ones! So take what you hear or read with a grain of salt.
A Special Bird: If a bird follows you home, or if you encounter the same type of bird over and over, it probably has some kind of meaning. It’s not necessarily your spirit animal (though it could be), it may just have a message you need to know. It can’t hurt to look up the meaning in a guidebook,such as Ted Andrews’ Animal Speak. But you should pay even more attention your own personal associations and instincts. Maybe the guidebook says cardinals have a certain meaning, but you feel something different based on a strong personal association, such as a cardinal family that nested outside your window when you were a child. In this case, you should pay attention to both meanings, but give precedence to the personal association, which will probably be stronger.
I remember one summer when it seemed like everywhere I went, I was practically tripping over great blue herons. Looking it up, I found that herons are a bird particularly associated with shamanism, which I found very interesting. But with further observation, I kept noticing how strong and self-sufficient these herons were — comfortable in air, land and water, a bird of the Three Worlds. At the time I’d been seriously considering joining a pagan group, but the heron’s message was that mine was to be a more solitary path.
Using a templum: If a simple bird omen is like pulling a single tarot card, taking auspices with a Roman templum is like reading a complicated spread. The ancient Romans used it not so much to divine the future as to consult with the gods about the present.
While it’s not well known, there’s no reason we can’t adapt this technique to our own times. It would take a whole book to explain how to do it, and I’m no expert, but here are the basics:
Go to the top of a hill and face the point in the east where the sun rises. Use a staff or wand to draw a line on the earth from direction the sun follows from sunrise to sunset, then another line perpendicular to the first. Use this orientation to trace a rectangle or square. Then draw a corresponding rectangle across the sky. This is called the templum, and it functions very much like the sacred circle in Wicca, creating a temporary sacred space. Pray for guidance, and plainly state your question. Incense, flute music and libations were traditional parts of the process, both as offerings and to help the augur ignore everyday sounds and concentrate on signals sent by the gods. Watch what birds that cross the templum — not just what kinds of birds, but also their number, the sounds they make and how they fly. The Romans paid special attention to eagles, hawks and vultures.
It seems to me a templum would be best used to find the answer to a well-formulated question; using it for general guidance could get awfully confusing. The simplest way would be for a yes-or-no question. In Roman tradition, a bird flying across the templum from in front or the left means the gods view your plan favorably. If a bird flies in from the right or from behind you, the gods disapprove.
Beyond this, there was a whole system of traditional correspondences for species, flight patterns, calls and other behavior that goes way beyond the scope of this article. It would be interesting to find new ways to use a templum to communicate with the heavens, perhaps by combining it with a more commonly used system of correspondences.
Observing Domestic Birds: We can also learn surprising things by observing the behavior domestic birds, whether they’re farm animals or urban pets. Bird owners often notice, for example, that their pets get skittish when a storm is approaching, even if there’s not yet a cloud in the sky. And some say hens’ behavior foretells the length of a storm; if they hide under their henhouse, expect a short rain, but if they just give up and go out in the yard, expect it to rain all day.
As with other pets, birds may form strong attachments with their human friends. If you have a psychic bond with your pet bird, consider yourself lucky!
Footnote: A Couple Not-Too-Stellar Examples of Bird Augury in Ancient Rome
* One commander had his troops ready for war, confident and eager to engage the enemy. Their chicken augur (pullarius) spread bread before the chickens, because the chickens’ appetite was supposed to augur success in battle. Unfortunately, the chickens refused to eat. So he claimed the food was still on the ground because they’d eaten it so greedily that they’d slobbered it, intentionally misreading the signals because he didn’t want to bring bad news. The general found out, though, and put the pullarius in the front of the army and let the enemy shoot at him. As the pullarius died, a crow cawed loudly. This was taken as a good omen, so they went into battle confident, and won.
* Chicken auguring was common practice in the navy too. One consul, Publius Pulcher, checked his chickens before a big battle and found they wouldn’t eat. Considering his crew superstitious, he said something like ‘oh well, then let them drink!” and tossed them into the Mediterranean. Bad idea — his navy went down in defeat.
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