Church of Birds:
An Eco-History of Myth and Religion
by Ben Gagnon
Publisher: Moon Books
Publication Date: April 1, 2023
Church of Birds is a compendium of myths, artifacts, and observations of birds throughout the history of humankind and their role in helping our ancient ancestors survive, thrive, and strive to be more connected to the gods and the natural world.
Chapter 1: The Language of Birdsong discusses the similarities between the songs birds sing and the evolution of human speech. The author mentions myths from civilizations around the world that have humans descendant from birds at the time of creation. It has myths that mention birds bringing life to the human race through their songs and various other ways. The author discusses how it was important to kings, shamans and other ancient leaders to be knowledgeable about bird language, and many believed that birds possessed knowledge of the future so understanding their song became an important skill.
Chapter 2 discusses how migratory birds delivered plant seeds to new locations year after year, helping bring food to the people who lived nearby which helped ensure their survival. Not only did they deliver sustenance, they helped form the landscape as told in many myths. Birds also provide a great security system as their disturbance can sound an alarm that danger is near. For all these reasons, people have followed bird migratory paths for thousands of years. The author discusses at length the importance of volcanic areas as they provide predator-free spaces for birds to rest, and the seeds planted from bird droppings receive fertile soil in which to grow, which helped our ancient ancestors survive and thrive, and thus had a seemingly fond appreciation of birds based on the artifacts that have been found.
Chapter 3 discusses the emergence of farming that is attributed to the landscaping initiated by migratory birds. As humans moved in response to their changing world as the Ice Age melted around them, stories emerged to help recount their history, such as the flood myths we may be familiar with. Places were migratory birds take off or make landfall became sacred sites marked with temples. Archaeological sites today reveal that birds were used for religious rituals and tool making as well.
Chapter 4 is a discussion on the Cosmic Egg and the different egg-shaped sites and artifacts that have been discovered. Many cultures have a Cosmic Egg creation myth of some sort, some about how the world as we know came to be or as the method humans were brought to this world. The oval shape of an egg held importance as is reflected in early huts and home shaped like eggs, oval-shaped rock formations, feminine fertility figures with egg-shaped bellies, and monuments.
Chapter 5 discusses the role of birds in the cycle of life and the afterlife itself. Phoenixes represent the daily path of the sun, other birds represent the cycle of life, death, and healing, and birds acted as psychopomps by picking the flesh off the dead and carrying it to the heavens. They were also spirits of the dead come back to this world with messages from the gods.
Chapter 6 features celestial stories of the Milky Way, which was seen frequently as a river, path, or road extending from the heavens to this mortal plane. The constellations in the sky were celestial reflections of the birds flying above winding rivers as the heavens reflected water, lava, flora, and other elements found on earth.
Chapter 7 introduces the World Tree and the different myths that involve birds. This chapter deviates a bit from being avian-centric and a bit of detail is provided on myths about hazel, oak, sycamore fig, yew, baobab, coconut palm, sacred fig, silver birch, yarran, eastern white pine, ceiba, and tobacco. Any relation to birds in their mythology is provided, of course.
Chapter 8 is about the myths that feature the changing of the seasons of the year as well as sex, death, and rebirth. The birds come into the scene in myths like when they take the souls of the dead, incubate them in their eggs, and hatch them back into the mortal realm at the winter solstice. This chapter deviates a bit from our feathered friends, but it’s still an interesting collection of funerary and winter solstice rituals from across many civilizations.
Chapter 9 talks about geoglyphs and how they were possibly created to help deliver messages to birds who were thought to be the sun’s messengers, as many of these man-made features are found at intersections in migration paths all over the world. Chapter 10 is another deviation about Neanderthals, their funerary practices, and tendencies of ancient humans to shape young children’s skulls to make them more ovate, and some of their other possible practices.
Our bird friends take back center stage in Chapter 11 with the observation that since Christianity, Islam, and Judaism do not include birds in their Garden of Eden stories, that the concept of reincarnation is lost in those religions. Angels seem to take on bird-like characteristics, and other similarities are pointed out within the mythology of these Abrahamic religions and others.
Chapter 12 discusses birds, and particularly eagles, as displays of war and national symbols and Chapter 13 discusses how the once sacred groves and waterways that inhabited many species of birds are in decline due to the exploitation of resources by humans.
This book is like drinking from a firehose of bird facts. I enjoyed learning a lot of new myths, ideas, and perspectives, though the organization of each felt like a quick-fire approach. I loved that so many cultures and civilizations were included in the details, but jumping around from one to another so quickly makes it hard for my brain to really retain anything that I have read. That said, I do intend to keep this book and use it as a reference when I need to know just about anything about birds and the natural world! I recommend this book to anyone who likes learning short facts and wants to get an abundant overview of the importance of birds throughout the world and history.
About the Author:
Montine is an astrologer, tarot reader, and occultist living on unceded Duwamish land that some call Seattle. A forever student, journalist, and queer gender-nonconforming femme, she spends her time listening to the stories people tell with the hope of understanding many more perspectives than her own. Recently diagnosed with ADHD and self-diagnosed as autistic, she is rediscovering the world through a neurodivergent lens and transforming her life to work smarter and not harder. She writes an annual called Book of My Shadows which explores different ways to use the energy of New and Full Moons for personal growth and exploration and one of her current hyperfixations is studying the Greek Magical Papyri.