Bird Gods.

A fascinating little book published in 1898, by Charles DeKay, it travels all over the world in pursuit of Bird Gods and myths about birds. There are many stories from Finland, I’d love to know if they are at all still known. (Hint, hint to Ice Swimmer & Lumipuna).

Speaking fluent German, French, and Italian, as well as studying Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit, DeKay’s linguistic background is apparent in the book as he traces the various cultures and mythologies that the different birds appear in. He presents the idea that, rather than the more distant celestial objects, it is the animals that have surrounded us which have been the root of religious ideas. Each chapter in the book presents a different bird, from the owl and peacock to the woodpecker and the dove, as well as the gods these birds represented. In his preface, DeKay writes of how humans have shared their belief in nature and that this still exists in us no matter of religion, language, or ethnicity, urging his readers to respect nature and not destroy it without reason. He writes:

[…] recollection of what our ancestors thought of birds and beasts, of how at one time they prized and idealized them, may induce in us, their descendants, some shame at the extermination to which we are consigning these lovable but helpless creatures, for temporary gains or sheer brutal love of slaughter. The sordid men who swept from North America the buffalo, the gentlemen who brag of moose and elephants slain, the ladies who demand birds for their hats and will not be denied, the boys who torture poor feathered singers and destroy their nests, are more ruthless than the primeval barbarians. […] The marvellous tale of the share birds have had in the making of myth, religion, poetry and legend may do somewhat to soften these flinty hearts and induce men to establish and carry out laws to protect especially the birds.

The illustrations by George Wharton Edwards are gorgeous. You can read or download Bird Gods here. Via The Public Domain Review.


  1. says

    Hmm, the book compares Irish legends of Cú Chulainn to the Persian hero Rostam. I’ll have to look into this further.

    Also, I’m not sure about this sentence regarding the Simorgh:

    When Roodabeh is about to bear Rustem, this bird is called in by Zal and helps the princess — doubtless by bringing her an aëtite stone.

    My copy of the Shahnameh says the Simorgh taught the court physician an herbal mixture and left one of her feathers. I suppose earlier versions of the legend tell of a stone, but I suspect De Kay is assuming too much.

  2. says

    Joseph, I think it’s fairly safe to assume that the story DeKay went with had been through many mouths; I don’t think he was terribly assiduous when sourcing the stories.

  3. Ice Swimmer says

    Thank you.
    The Finnish stories are mostly from Kalevala or Kanteletar. Kalevala is rather well-known and at least when I was in school, it was part of the curriculum. Kanteletar is also well, known, but as it isnt’t an epic, just a collection of lyrical runes, it’s much harder to remember what’s in there. Both were compiled by Elias Lönnroth (a medical doctor, linguist, journalist and botanist) in the 19th century.

    A note:

    The writer claimed that one of the names of Lemminkäinen (the warrior/womanizer dudebro in Kalevala), Kaukomieli or Kauko could have something to do with cuckoo, käki in Finnish. Could be, not sure. Kaukomieli could be also translated as Far-away mind.

  4. Ice Swimmer says

    The reason why some central characters in Kalevala have multiple names or epithets may have something to do with the structure of the folk runes, previous line is often repeated with different words (to make it easier to remember the poetry).

  5. lumipuna says

    I’d say old Finnish folklore is generally rather poorly known in modern Finland, although many people do know some snippets filtered through Lönnrot’s Kalevala. This highly popular epic is a 19th century literary development of what was then archaic folklore.

    One fairly well known meme is the vague association between whooper swan (Cygnus cygnus) and Otherworld. Details are not known, but some hints in folklore imply that the swan was once considered sacred and unkillable. This attitude gradually dissipated after the spread of Christianity and firearms. Because of hunting (illegal since 1936), whooper swan was nearly extinct in Finland by mid 20th century.

    In 1950s, whooper swan was made the flagship of Finnish nature conservation movement, in part because of its role in folklore (as popularized by the Kalevala). The bird then became a Finnish national symbol and highly valued enough that illegal hunting stopped and the population was able to recover.

  6. lumipuna says

    The mute swan (Gygnus olor) was introduced in Finland in 1930s and became common in southwestern coastal areas in late 20th century, shortly before the whooper swan began to re-colonize from northeast. The mute swan, famous from European park ponds, with its iconic s-shaped neck and orange bill, is a more southern species than the whooper, and is considered “foreign” in Finland although recent findings have shown that it lived here in prehistoric times. Finnish birdwatchers in recent times used to routinely dismiss the mute swan as “meh, not the real swan”.

    Several Finnish lakes are named “Swan Lake” (Joutsenjärvi, Joutsijärvi or some other variant), whereas the Tchaikovsky ballet is translated as “Swan Pond” (Joutsenlampi). The Whooper swan evokes images of unspoiled northern wilderness -- incidentally the last refuge of the species in 20th century, and also the last refuge of older Finnish folklore. This rural boreal wilderness imagery has been central in Finnish national identity since Lönnrot’s time, while people increasingly live in southern cities.

  7. says


    whereas the Tchaikovsky ballet is translated as “Swan Pond” (Joutsenlampi).

    That certainly changes the image in your head. :D

  8. lumipuna says

    It’s true, we Finns have very different stereotype associations with the mute swan -- human tended park pond -- and whooper swan -- pristine wilderness lake.

  9. Ice Swimmer says

    One thing DeKay hadn’t heard that has been somewhat well-known bird lore is that about the Siberian jay (Perisoreus infaustus), in Finnish kuukkeli*) has been considered as a good-luck bird for hunters and loggers. The birds are curious and often come visit campfire sites and beg for food.

    Also, one thing I got from the popular*** self-biographical novel series (I’ve read 3 or 4 books of the 26) by Kalle Päätalo (1919 -- 2000) is that tits and chickadees were considered back luck by lumberjacks of older (his dad’s) generation (devil birds). Not sure if this was just in the North or more widely.
    * = nowadays Google is sometimes called Kuukkeli, because of similar pronunciation (g isn’t a native Finnish** consonant and the always non-aspirated Finnish k isn’t too far off).
    ** = Though in the Soutwestern dialects the k can sound like a g to the rest of the Finnish speakers
    *** = stereotypically especially popular among older folks born in the countryside

  10. says

    What a beautiful bird that is! Tits and chickadees, bad luck. Huh. I wonder why. There are so many superstitions about birds. I quite like the sound of Kuukkeli.

  11. lumipuna says

    Siberian and grey jay are apparently very closely related, and similarly reputed for stealing/begging food from campsites.

    Finnish Wikipedia notes that in Sami and Northern Finnish folklore the Siberian jay (Sami: guovssat) was believed to be a host or guardian of dead people’s souls. The northern lights were believed to be dead people’s ghosts, which is why their name in Sami is guovssahasat, “jay’s fire”. The Finnish name for northern lights is revontulet, “fox’s fire”, in reference to a story about a fox that sparks fire to the sky by sweeping its tail against hills.

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