In the ancient world, birds were studied because they were thought to reveal, by their behaviour, the will, intentions and future activity of the gods. In modern terms, they gave warning of imminent electrical storms and earthquakes. They are still observed today for this purpose in some parts of the world.
The specialist bird watcher, the augur, was an adviser of the monarch and executive magistrates.
The Roman augur did not just stay at Rome and warn about likely future happenings elsewhere. Senior magistrates and commanders could take the auspices, and sacred chickens were taken on campaigns. There was an occasion when a Roman admiral was dissatisfied when told of the reluctance of the chickens to eat their proffered food, a sign that the moment was unfavourable for the planned attack on the enemy fleet. He said: If they will not eat, let them drink! and ordered them to be thrown overboard to drown. This rash and impious act was regarded as the cause of the disastrous defeat that followed.
A broad distinction can be made between two kinds of bird behaviour studied by the augur:
1: The flight and direction of the eagle and similar birds of prey. The eagle's swoop onto a snake was particularly significant because it symbolised what was thought to have happened in the sky in the past and might happen again in the future.
2: The behaviour, generally on the ground, of such birds as the quail and the hoopoe. The hoopoe gave warning when it detected changes in the atmosphere that heralded an electrical storm. It detected earthquake light and piezoelectric charges on split rocks, in the ten or twelve hours before an earthquake.
As in other branches of electrical theology, certain key words of the augur's technical vocabulary cross the usual frontier between Semitic and Indo-European.
Hebrew oph, a collective noun meaning 'birds', is found in mopeth, omen. Bearing in mind that the Hebrew preposition m or min is 'from', we may conclude that the Hebrew conception of an omen was closely linked with the observation of birds.
Teiresias, the Greek prophet who lived in Thebes, and who figures so prominently in the Oedipus Rex of Sophocles, had a hide, or bird observatory, oionoskopeion, outside the city. Thebes was a city with oriental links through its founder Kadmos. The fact that he and his wife turned into snakes may be a pointer to the meaning of his name, which suggests ka and the Greek demas, body.
The Latin name aquila for an eagle points to Ugro-Finnish origins. The Hungarian kvil is light; kivilagit is to illuminate. Greek aigle is a ray. Greek aetos, eagle, resembles Hebrew ayit, bird of prey. The Norse orn, eagle, lived on top of the world tree Yggdrasil. A squirrel, named Ratatosk, carried messages between the eagle and the snake at the foot of the tree.
Orn resembles Greek ornis, bird, and there is even a resemblance to the Hebrew or, light. The Slavonic orel is an eagle.
The Stymphalian birds, whose elimination was one of the labours of Hercules, may have had electrical significance. Marshes, in which they lived, attracted lightning; Dionysus was Limnaios, 'of the marshes'.
Sculptured eagles were used as lightning conductors on buildings, as at Delphi.
Hebrew azniya is a kind of eagle. Reversed, this becomes ayin za. Ayin is an eye. The falcon was the lightning symbol of the Egyptians, and was associated with Horus.
The object appearing in Egyptian art and hieroglyphics and called the utchat, or udjat, was the eye of Horus or of Ra.
The osprey, a bird of prey like the eagle, was in Latin sanqualis. As with the eagle, the Romans watched its flight. The name may incorporate sankh; the radiation of the god was thought to give life.
The buteo, falcon, was watched for its flight. The ibis, which had great skill in killing snakes, was associated with the god Thoth, who was equated with the Greek Hermes and was the Egyptian electrical god par excellence.
Latin ardea is a heron. It was noted for the long crest on its head. Of the two elements of the word, ar is clearly the fire. Dea is rather less obvious, but Hebrew dea, knowledge, is an attractive possibility. Ardea was the name of an Etruscan city near Rome, capital of the Rutuli. The peacock was sacred to Juno. Its Latin name was pavo. Perhaps the pattern on its tail, resembling eyes, associated it with radiation. Its name resembles the Latin pavor, fear. The name of Juno's Greek counterpart, the goddess Hera, suggests fear. In Egyptian, her, hra, mean 'face; upon'. Herit means 'fear'. It is possible that Hera was originally thought of as the atmosphere surrounding the planet that the Romans called Jupiter.
It was known that the peacock sheds its feathers from time to time. This may explain the hoplitodromos at Athens, a race by hoplites, armed soldiers, wearing nothing but helmets.
The great significance of the goose may be due to the appearance of a heavenly body such as a comet, with wing-like protuberances. Aphrodite is portrayed riding on a goose. The goose has a long neck, and hisses like a snake. The owl was sacred to Athene. Its staring eyes suggested a pair of heavenly bodies, and its cry could remind the hearer of the Egyptian and Hebrew sacred sound iaaooei.
The dove was the bird of Aphrodite, and represents the goddess in gentle form, in contrast to the eagle.
The wry neck was used in the making of spells. It can produce a hiss like a snake, and owes its name to the wide angle through which it can turn its head, as if it were the Janus of the bird world.
The cornix, crow, is mentioned by Horace as the prophet which, by its cries, foretells rain, cornix augur aquae. Vergil also mentions it in the same context, Georgic I: 388. In Norse it is kraka. The Greek korax is a crow or raven, and the word can mean something strange and unexpected.
Odin had two ravens, Hugin and Muninn. Huga is to meditate, muninn is to remember.
Princes and army officers wore feathers on their headgear to suggest that they would strike their enemies as if with lightning. Minos is described as cristata casside pennis, with a crest of feathers on his helmet. It was also a practice of the Philistines to wear feathered headgear. An Etruscan link is likely.
If the eagle was the chief of the birds symbolising the lightning god in the sky, the hoopoe was the chief of the birds that detected the electrical god in the earth. Its name, epops, beholder, indicates that it could see the earthquake light. [Japanese and American scientists are now studying such phenomena.] In the Birds of Aristophanes, a character says Quiet! The hoopoe is going to sing! A few moments later, the hoopoe begins its song. Probably the hoopoe is on stage and it is the hoopoe's crest that attracts attention.
The Greek horan, to see, has a perfect tense opopa, sometimes used instead of the usual form heoraka. The hoopoe was the bird that saw, and there was a frieze of hoopoes at Knosos, the place of gnosis, getting to know. We have already seen that the name of the hoopoe in The Birds is Tereus, a word that comes from the Greek tereo, I observe.
The Hebrew for a hoopoe is dukhiphat. Duch is a Slavonic word meaning 'spirit'; phat is a Greek root meaning revelation, either by sound or by sight.
The quail, ortyx, gives its name to an island: Ortygia is an old name for Delos.
In Umbria, a district of Italy, the word angla, plural anglar, was used of birds that were watched for omens. There may be a link with the Latin angulus, corner. The point where a flight of birds would suddenly turn, all together, would be of great significance to the augur. The Umbrian word verfale, temple, may be from the Latin verb verto, turn. The place where birds turned could be thought to be the right place for a temple. This may be the explanation of a passage in the Etruscan Tables of Iguvium. Vide Mayani, The Etruscans Begin to Speak, p. 371. This is not the only possibility. A bird was a messenger, Greek angelos, of the gods. We have already mentioned the Hebrew mopeth, omen, 'from the birds'. It is likely that there is a similar explanation of the important Greek word sophia.
Sophia, usually translated as wisdom, means cleverness and natural aptitude, contrasted with mathesis, which means learning by inquiry. The adjective sophos was applied not only to humans but also, as for example by Xenophon, to animals. It is used to mean shrewd and wise in politics. Sophocles applies it to oionothetae, augurs, in his King Oedipus, l. 484. The word can mean skilled in the sciences, cunning, and abstruse.
In Wagner's opera Siegfried, the hero of that name has a
conversation with a bird on his journey along the Rhine.