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What Are the Roles of Birds in Mythology?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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The roles of birds in mythology are nearly as diverse as the various types of birds found in stories and legends across the world. Birds are often associated with particular gods or deities in various traditions, sometimes acting as gods themselves and other times helping gods or symbolizing deities. Some birds are associated with good omens and positive ideas, while other birds are often seen as portents of misfortune or death. There are also a number of instances of fabulous and imaginary birds in mythology, such as the phoenix.

Birds in mythology are often given a number of different roles and attributes, depending on the culture from which the stories about them arise. In some traditions, a bird is responsible for the creation of the universe, including stories in which the world hatches from a golden egg and others in which a bird dives down into the ocean and pulls the land up from underwater. There are some mythologies in which birds are seen as sacred or divine. Egyptian mythology tells of the Benu bird that was the first creature in the world and brought the other gods into the world, while Central American myths often surrounded Quetzalcoatl, a fantastical deity combining elements of a bird and a snake.

There are also numerous instances of birds in mythology that serve symbolic purposes. Some birds are used as messengers for gods, while others are directly associated with certain gods, such as an owl as a symbol of the Greek goddess Athena. The Norse god Odin is accompanied by two ravens, named Huginn and Muninn for “thought” and “memory,” who tell him about events on Earth.

Birds in mythology often come to represent certain ideas or concepts as well. Ravens and crows have become associated with death and conflict, likely due to their presence at battlefields to feed on dead bodies. Doves are often associated with hope and love, and in some traditions are seen as representative of the human soul. Many birds are associated with the idea of a soul and their flight is seen as symbolic of the voyage of human consciousness after death.

There are also a number of birds in mythology that are fictional creatures. This includes the roc, a massive bird from Arabic tales. The phoenix is a mythological bird that is said to be immortal. At the end of a phoenix’s life, the phoenix bursts into flames and burns away to an egg, from which a full grown phoenix emerges when it hatches.

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Discussion Comments
By literally45 — On Jul 05, 2012

@burcidi, @burcinc-- Let's not forget about the role of birds in Asian mythology. Most people know about Greek and Native American mythology. But few know about myths in Asian countries like China and Korea.

Chinese mythology mentions mythical birds too and they're usually messengers from heaven who give directions to emperors and leaders about what they should do. I vividly remember one myth that my Chinese history instructor had talked about in class.

It was about the ruler of the Shang Dynasty who was a mean and abusive ruler who didn't treat his people right. So heaven decided to put another man in his place as emperor and sent a red bird to deliver the message. The red bird told the new emperor how to kill the old one and establish his throne.

By burcinc — On Jul 04, 2012

@burcidi-- That's really interesting! Do you believe in Ziz?

In the Middle East, the owl (or night owl) is considered to be a bad omen due to the myth that if an owl sits on someone's house and calls for a long time, someone in that house will die. Some people in the Middle East think that the owl is bad luck for that reason.

I do believe the myth about owls because I have heard real-life accounts from friends and family who have confirmed it. But I don't think the owl itself is unlucky. I think owls have a God-given gift of knowing who might die soon. And for some reason, they go near that home and call out.

Of course this sounds really scary to people and if they hear an owl calling near their home, they will try to chase it away. I think animals, and especially birds, have greater perception than we do as humans. They see and know more than we do about what is happening in our surroundings. That's why I believe this mythology about owls.

Does anyone else know a bird myth that they believe?

By burcidi — On Jul 04, 2012

The only bird myth I know about is the myth of Ziz which is mentioned in the Bible and the Old Testament. Along with Leviathan and Behemoth, which are two other mythological creatures/animals, God will serve Ziz to people after the End of Days.

Ziz is supposed to be a gigantic bird, so big that if it walks in the ocean, only its legs will get wet. Each of its eggs is the size of a mountain and if it flies, it will change the direction of the winds.

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