Birds soaring high above the earth reaching for the heavens have long inspired humans as links to the divine realm. Birds fulfill various functions in world cultures and religions – from playing a central role in creation, to birth, to healing, to death; from messenger to trickster to oracle. Some birds are associated with shape shifting and transformation.
In the very ancient days, when humans had first learned how to sow, how to reap, and how to herd, the Bird Goddess was worshiped. Marija Gimbutas’ groundbreaking archeological work uncovered a culture in which the Bird Goddess and the Snake Goddess, sometimes depicted individually but often together, were supreme. She is the Divine embodied in the feminine.
By the time the Old European civilization reached its cultural peak around 5000 BC very sophisticated representations of the Bird and Snake Goddess emerged. Many of the statues of Bird Goddesses found by Gimbutas have arm stumps with perforations which would have allowed wings or feathers to be attached.
All stories, ceremonies and names associated with this ancient Neolithic goddess are long lost to us. But from the great quantity of statues found and the symbolic marks carved on them it is easy to believe that The Bird Goddess was seen as a divine being who nurtured and protected the world. The meander, most likely symbolic of the waters of life, is pervasive on these figures together with the triangle, universal symbol of the Goddess and Her life giving nature.
Since the Paleolithic period the human longing to understand our place in the cosmos opens us to a language of symbols. Certainly the culture of Old Europe, which had only recently transitioned from the precarious life of hunting and gathering into one of settled agriculture, was grateful for the abundance provided by their new knowledge of earth’s secrets. Our ancestors, still deeply connected to the natural world, must have listened with delight to the morning bird song and gazed in amazement at birds in flight. Surely that delight and amazement would have stimulated a symbolic understanding of birds. It’s easy to see how a Bird Goddess could become supreme.
This Bird/Serpent Goddess of Old Europe was eventually known to the Sumerians as Lilith. She is depicted on a Babylonian clay plaque from 2000-1600 BCE as a beautiful winged woman with bird’s feet and claws.
As time moved on and cultures developed, the Bird Goddess became a variety of different goddesses associated with birds. The Egyptian Goddess, Isis is often depicted with wide open wings. Many considered her to be a Bird Goddess. In early Egypt, Isis and Her sister Nephthys were either shown as birds or as women headed kestrels or kites. In later Egyptian representations of Isis she was depicted with huge outstretched wings attached to her arms. She used her wings to fan renewed life into Osiris. The Old European world view of the Bird Goddess as nurturer and protector continued on in the Egyptian world view.
In the temples of Knossos In Minoan Crete, bell-shaped goddesses with bird heads or birds on their heads were found. Both Minoan and Mycanean ceramic art reveal a wealth of birds on figurines and on pottery. Depictions of the Bird Goddess continued into the pantheon of the ancient Greeks. Athena was occasionally winged and the bird is associated with her. Aphrodite also retained some Old European features of the Bird Goddess.
Celtic Goddess, Rhiannon, was associated with birds and horses. The birds of Rhiannon were with her always. Her birds could heal on the soul level. When healing was not possible Rhiannon’s birds sang so sweetly that the dying went gladly to their deaths.
The ancient Bird Goddess ruled over life and death. In the ancient world view the two were seen as completely connected. Life gives way to death which in turn gives way to life. Similarly various later representations of Bird Goddesses connected them to death. Chlíodhna, Celtic Goddes of Beauty often took the form of a seabird, symbol of the Celtic Otherworld. The Morrigan, Celtic Dark Goddess was the gateway to life and to death. She was known to shape shift into a raven or crow. In this form she either warned of battle or feasted on the remains of battle.
Many, many more cultures, too numerous to site here, have associated birds with the life giving and life taking powers of the Goddess. Artist today continue to explore the theme. Here are a few of my paintings which have been inspired by birds and the Bird Goddess.
At this point in our collective journey through time the world is fraught with the dark side of human nature, – the hatreds, the fears of others, the desires for power over and the violence. Let us learn from the wisdom of Old Europe which all evidence indicates to have been a culture of peace, a culture which honored life in all its cycles, a culture whose supreme being was the Bird Goddess – protector, nurturer and giver of life.
Judith Shaw, a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, has been interested in myth, culture and mystical studies all her life. Not long after graduating from SFAI, while living in Greece, Judith began exploring the Goddess in her artwork. She continues to be inspired by the Goddess in all of Her manifestations. Originally from New Orleans, Judith now makes her home in New Mexico where she paints and sells real estate part-time. She is currently hard at work on a deck of Goddess cards. Give yourself the gift of one of Judith’s prints and paintings, priced from $25 – $3000.