Bird Gods and Goddesses Associated With Birds of Flight
Belief in Bird Gods
For as long as humans can remember, we have been fascinated by the bird's ability to fly. So much so that we invented a flying machine called the airplane. We dream of flying, and some of us even have birds as pets. But where did this fascination with winged things begin? Is our fascination with birds as ancient as Egypt itself?
Birds have long been considered messengers of the gods, and often people associate bird feathers with angels or friendly spirit guides. But if we look back to ancient times, we can see that many of the pagan gods and goddesses bore resemblance to birds, if not looked exactly like a certain bird. Did belief in these gods arise with our intrigue in birds or did our intrigue in birds arise from our beliefs in winged gods?
Thoth - The Ibis God
Thoth is a very old and wise bird god whose cult was prominent in ancient Egypt in the late period, but many believe his presence dates back to prehistoric times. Thoth is known as the god of wisdom, writing, mathematics, and magic. He has been credited with the creation of the calendar, as well as with the creation of our planet. Although Thoth was one of the most influential of the ancient Egyptian gods, he is often looked over in modern times...commonly brushed aside for the likes of Osiris and Isis (among others).
Thoth is known as the Ibis God, as he is usually depicted with the head of a bird known as the Ibis. The Ibis was a sacred bird to the ancient Egyptians. Various kinds of the Ibis can still be seen today in parts of Africa, North America, Australia, and Asia. It is a rather strange-looking bird, but if one is to watch the Ibis in flight, one would understand how majestic these creatures truly are.
Thoth, also known as Tehuti, is said to come to those who he feels a deep connection to (mostly through writing and magic). Some believe he dates back to the times of Atlantis, and even before the beginnings of man on Earth. There are even those who say Thoth is a being from another planet with the ability to create life forms such as human beings. He is often associated with the ancient egyptian creator gods known as the Ogdoad.
If Thoth is coming to you, he will almost always come in the form of the Ibis.
Nekhbet - The Vulture Goddess
Nekhbet is another one of Ancient Egypt's deeply mysterious deities. And guess what? She is also a bird god in that she was almost always depicted on temple and tomb walls in the form of a vulture. Nekhbet is also one of the oldest Egyptian gods, dating to the Predynastic period. She was the representative symbol of Upper Egypt, while her "sister" Wadjet was the symbol of Lower Egypt. When ancient Egypt united as one country, they were then depicted together.
Interestingly, many people find vultures to be frightening or revolting birds today. They are carion birds, meaning they will eat whatever dead things they find...including other birds. But what the Egyptians knew about vultures isn't that they were disgusting creatures. They knew that the vulture could fly high, and could take death and literally turn it into fuel for life. There are also theories that the vulture sacred to the Egyptians was the Griffon Vulture, a large bird that lives many years (for up to 42 years).
Nekhbet's cult was largest within the walls of the original City of the Dead. It is no wonder they chose a vulture as Nekhbet's representation...if we look at the root of this word we can see Nek as a prominent syllable within it...and now we look at the syllables Nekros meaning corpse. My guess is that Nekhbet was a guardian of the Dead or possibly some form of very powerful Underworld Goddess. Perhaps she is a guide to the next life.
The Owl Goddesses
There is a stigma behind the Owl. Certain superstitions and such in the United States and elsewhere tell us that the Owl is a sign of impending death; the Owl is a bad omen. But to ancient people in Greece and Wales, the Owl was a sacred animal - a representative of certain goddesses in their shifted form.
Hecate is an ancient Greek goddess who is very well known in modern times for being Goddess of Witches. She is thought to be a prehistoric or primordial goddess that dates back to pre-Grecian times and might have originated with the Anatolians. She was thought of as a shapeshifting goddess of sorts and would often take the form of a three-headed black canine at a crossroads. Hecate was and is also known for taking the form of an Owl. This is no wonder, as Hecate was often associated with the Crone (old woman) aspect of the Goddess and so superseded death or the dying process. We can see that the Owl was also representative of the darkness (as Owls are nocturnal), and that they have been seen as omens in other cultures. Hecate is the Owl Goddess of the crossroads, death, magic, the darkness, and the Moon (among other things).
Blodeuwedd is a bird god in that she is often depicted as an Owl, which is also according to myth. From the Welsh tradition, the story goes that Blodeuwedd was a beautiful goddess made by magicians in order to be a wife for Lleu Llaw Gyffes (a Welsh hero). Lleu had been cursed to never marry a human woman. Unfortunately, while Lleu was away, Blodeuwedd would play...she cheated on him and because of her betrayal she was turned into an Owl by one of the magicians who had made her. The reason the magician chose to make her an Owl was that the Owl was "disliked by all other birds" (according to Welsh mythology). In this case, we can see that being an Owl wasn't necessarily considered a reward but more of a punishment to the Welsh.
What I find interesting is that in the same Welsh mythology, Lleu's mother by the name of Arianrhod was said to have the ability to change into the Great Owl. She would then look into the darkness and see all around her...even through to the core of someone's soul. So, although turning into an Owl permanently was a punishment for Blodeuwedd, it was apparently an important power for Arianrhod...keeping in mind that Arianrhod had the ability to change back to her original form.
The Morrigan - The Crow Goddess
For many people, crows seem to be nothing more than a nuisance. They invade the streets, scare away other birds, and drain bird feeders. But to the ancient Celts, they might have been viewed as more. These black birds were indeed associated with the mighty Irish Goddess, The Morrigan.
The Morrigan was a shapeshifting goddess who is most well-known for her part in the Ulster Cycle. She took a warrior's stance in the battle of Ulster and is said to have flown above the warriors in the form of a crow during other wars. The Morrigan is listed as one of the powerful and very ancient Tuatha de Danann (the first people of Ireland who were also considered gods). She is the Irish bird goddess of war, protection, hunting, and abundance.
On occasion, The Morrigan has been considered a part of a three-headed sisterhood with the Irish goddesses Badb and Macha. She not only shapeshifts into the form of a crow, but also into the form of a cow, a slippery eel, and a wolf. The Morrigan was a goddess to fear, but she looked out for her own people.
Often when people honor The Morrigan in modern times, crow feathers and likenesses are used on her altars to represent her in Crow form.
Let us not forget that the crow is one of the most intelligent birds in the world.
Manannan Mac Lir - The Seagull God
Manannan Mac Lir is a Celtic god who often appears in the form of the seagull. He is a god of the sea, and a son of the god Lir. Just like the seagull, Manannan has a sense of humor but is also a survivalist. He is thought to be a psychopomp, and more can be read on his duty as a psychopomp here. Just as his other psychopomp counterparts, Manannan enjoys playing a good trick on those deserving.
Manannan is a guardian of the gateways between the worlds, as ancient Celts thought that the otherworld was under or beyond the seas. He is still honored to this day by the Manx people, who send offerings of various plants into the water to appease Manannan for a bountiful fishing harvest and calm seas. This bird god is also said to be associated with the Blessed Isle or the Isle of Apple Trees in that he had control over the mist that protected the sacred Isle.
The Isle of Man, Where Manannan Mac Lir is still honored.
Are there other bird gods?
This by no means encompasses all of the ancient gods and goddesses associated with birds. Almost every ancient culture and civilization found birds to be magical in one way or another, including but not limited to the Native Americans, Egyptians, Celts, Assyrians, Aztecs, and the list could go on and on.
Don't forget there are lower deities and paranormal creatures of legend that are also thought of in bird-form, such as: the Sirens, La Lechuza, the Owlman of Mawnan (Cornwall), Thunderbirds, ghost birds among others.
Please let me know if you have any bird gods or goddesses to add to this list!
Test your bird-god knowledge.
© 2014 Author Nicole Canfield